Justices void award in tobacco lawsuit

Court had ordered Philip Morris to pay $79.5 million

February 21, 2007|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court handed Big Tobacco a victory yesterday in overturning a $79.5 million award to a smoker's widow, but declined to rule whether such punitive-damage awards are excessive.

Although the Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA may have won an important battle in the effort of corporations to cut down big jury awards, the outcome of the larger legal conflict remains to be decided.

In its 5-4 decision, the high court tightened legal standards that will guide future punitive-damage cases. It struck down the award on grounds that the judge had not instructed the jury that it could only punish Philip Morris for damage done to the plaintiff - not for harm done to smokers not directly involved in the case.

There was no indication when or if the justices will address the issue of whether large punitive-damage awards should be scaled back, though analysts say that could happen in the near future.

The trial court had rejected a proposed Philip Morris jury instruction. It would have said that jurors were "not to punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other persons, who may bring lawsuits of their own in which juries can resolve their claims and award punitive damages for those harms, as other juries see it."

The decision struck down an Oregon Supreme Court decision upholding the verdict on behalf of Mayola Williams, who had sued on behalf of her husband, Jesse Williams, who died of lung cancer more than nine years ago. For 45 years, he had smoked two packs a day of Marlboro cigarettes, manufactured by Philip Morris.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter voted with Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas dissented.

After conservatives Roberts and Alito joined the court last year, analysts have watched closely to see whether it would become more pro-business. There was no clear answer in yesterday's decision as Breyer, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who is considered one of the court's liberals, joined the majority, while conservative justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.

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