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Supreme Court dismisses appeal in tobacco case with $79.5 million verdict

The case was considered one of the most important of the current term because it suggested the justices were headed into a showdown with the Supreme Court of Oregon.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2009

Mayola Williams is the widow of Jesse Williams, who was a lifelong smoker. She is shown here leaving the US Supreme Court in 2006. On Tuesday, the high court threw out Philip Morris's appeal in her case.

Dennis Cook/AP/file

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Washington

After a 10-year court battle, the widow of a lifelong smoker will finally be able to collect her portion of a $79.5 million punitive-damages award against tobacco company Philip Morris.

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The development came Tuesday with a surprise announcement that the US Supreme Court had decided to dismiss the tobacco company's appeal without reaching any decision on pending issues.

The action left undisturbed an earlier decision by the Oregon Supreme Court upholding the award to Mayola Williams.

The case was considered one of the most important of the current term because it suggested the justices were headed into an unprecedented showdown with the Supreme Court of Oregon.

The Oregon court has previously upheld the $79.5 million verdict. In contrast, the US Supreme Court has suggested that it might amount to excessive punishment.

Rather than address the excessive-damages issue itself, the US Supreme Court twice sent the case back to the Oregon courts. Both times, instead of reducing the verdict, the Oregon high court affirmed it. In early 2008, it did so by citing state law grounds beyond the scope of the US Supreme Court's remand order.

Some analysts viewed that action as open defiance of the US Supreme Court. Others defended the Oregon high court's approach. Regardless, the stage appeared set for judicial fireworks.

Until Tuesday.

Rather than a fiery exchange, Philip Morris v. Mayola Williams ended with a fizzle.

"The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted," the court said in its one-line order.

Critics of the tobacco industry claimed victory since the dismissal left in place the large verdict against Philip Morris. Other analysts cautioned that it is impossible to know why the justices decided to dismiss the case three months after hearing oral arguments.

Ms. Williams's lawyer, Robert Peck, told the Associated Press the outcome suggests that larger punitive-damages awards are merited in cases where the underlying behavior is "sufficiently reprehensible."

Tobacco company officials disagreed. "Today's decision does not impact the court's earlier decisions on punitive damages," said Murray Garnick, associate general counsel at Altria, in a statement. Altria is the parent company to Philip Morris.

In 1999, an Oregon jury delivered a verdict in a case alleging that cigarette-maker Philip Morris engaged in a massive fraud against one of its best customers.

Williams said her late husband, Jesse, trusted the company when it played down warnings that cigarettes can be hazardous to your health. Mr. Williams smoked three packs a day until his lung-cancer diagnosis and death in 1997.

Philip Morris denied the fraud allegations. Lawyers for the company argued that the health hazards of cigarette smoking are widely known and that its customers accept those health risks when they purchase tobacco products.

In closing arguments, lawyers for Ms. Williams urged the Oregon jury to punish Philip Morris, not just on behalf of her husband, but for the thousands of other smokers duped or misled by the tobacco company.

Philip Morris lawyers responded by asking the trial judge to issue an instruction to the jury that any verdict be based on harms allegedly done to Mr. Williams, not to unidentified other smokers.

The judge declined to give the company's suggested instruction to the jury.

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