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Supreme Court case: Are jury awards too high?

The High Court hears Tuesday a case where the widow of an Oregon smoker got $79.5 million.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2006



WASHINGTON

Jesse Williams smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 45 years. Following his death in 1997 after being diagnosed with lung cancer, his wife, Mayola, sued the Philip Morris tobacco company seeking $100 million in punitive damages.

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The Oregon jury that heard her case rejected the $100 million request. Instead, it awarded her $79.5 million.

Tuesday, the case arrives at the US Supreme Court where lawyers for Philip Morris are asking the justices to strike down the punitive damage award as constitutionally excessive and fundamentally unfair. The case, Philip Morris v. Mayola Williams, is being closely watched to see whether a majority of justices are willing to issue strict guidelines to identify when a punitive damage award is unconstitutionally excessive.

Lawyers for Philip Morris say the judge in the case allowed the jury to punish the tobacco company for alleged harms done to other smokers in Oregon beyond the specific harm suffered by Mr. Williams and his family.

They also argue that the $79.5 million award violates "guideposts" set by the Supreme Court in earlier cases barring punitive damage verdicts that are out of proportion to the harm done.

Lawyers for Ms. Williams counter that Philip Morris engaged in a massive and deadly fraud by pushing an addictive product on the public while concealing information it knew about the unhealthful effects of smoking.

Instead of supporting a government health campaign against smoking in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the tobacco company cast doubt on research showing the deadly effects of smoking. The lawyers say Philip Morris launched a deceptive public campaign to offer a crutch and an excuse to its addicted customers so they would keep using their product. Under these circumstances, the lawyers say, the $79.5 million award is appropriate rather than excessive.

"Where a fraud is as monstrous as this one was in its willingness to put lives at risk for profit, strong medicine is required," writes Robert Peck, a Williams lawyer, in his brief.

High Court has limited punitive damages

In recent years, the Supreme Court has moved toward limiting large punitive damage awards by establishing a three-part test. But the champion of that approach, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has retired from the court and it is unclear how the newest members of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, will view the issue.

In addition, some state courts have declined to strictly apply the high court's three-part test and have allowed large punitive damages.

"What is really at stake fundamentally is the Supreme Court's holdings on whether there is an outer limit to punitive damages," says Sherman Joyce of the American Tort Reform Association in Washington. "It seemed to us that the Oregon courts had not been faithful to the Supreme Court's holdings."

Trial lawyers and their supporters argue that the high court never completely closed the door on large punitive damage awards in cases involving extraordinarily reprehensible conduct. In such cases, they say, the size of punitive damage awards should be up to juries and to state lawmakers, rather than Supreme Court justices.

"Punitive damages throughout the history of our country have been a matter relegated to the states," says Edward Sweda of the Tobacco Control Resource Center at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. "If Oregonians thought that punitive damage awards were too high, they could go to their lawmakers to enact a cap, but they have chosen not to do so."

Jury told to consider other injured smokers
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