Supreme Court Tosses Punitive Damage Award

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected (see NY Times article) a $79.5 million punitive damage award against Philip Morris in a lawsuit brought by the widow of long-time smoker Jesse Williams. The 5-4 decision found there to be a taking of property without due process when punitive damages are calculated by determining the measure of harm to a single plaintiff and then multiplying that amount by the number of third parties similarly harmed. The Court declined the opportunity, sought by Philip Morris and other industry groups, to establish a cap to punitive damages. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Souter. Justices Stevens and Thomas filed solo dissenting opinions and Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent that was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas. The case is Philip Morris USA v Williams.

4 Replies to “Supreme Court Tosses Punitive Damage Award”

  1. zebra

    I always find big business lawsuits interesting because there is always a lot at risk. What justice does it serve to pay ONE plaintiff such a large sum of money? There are potentially tens of thousands of people out there that could claim the same thing as the plaintiff in this case. Why should this one woman reep such a large reward? I understand that since cigarette companies bring in massive amounts of money each year, only a very large monetary ruling could have an impact on them but still I am bothered by the thought of one person cashing in. I may be slightly more understand a case that sues a cigarette company and uses monetary damages to educate people on the harms of smoking or anti-smoking campaigns for children. But who could even bring this sort of case to court anyways? Since the government has chosen to keep cigarettes legal do they even have the right to sue cigarette companies for monetary damages to be used for these sort of educational initiatives?

    What about government responsibility? Cigarettes are legal despite their obvious health risks, the only people who can make them illegal is the government, and since our government has decided to keep cigarettes legal they are keeping them in the public realm and making them easily accessible. Do people just go after cigarette companies and other big businesses because they know they have deep pockets.

    As much as I disapprove of cigarette companies, I’m glad this case was rejected. I think cigarette companies are often wrong and should be punished, but they are not the only ones to blame. Further, let’s remember that we all have free will. No one can make you smoke, it is a choice, and with any choice one must accept the consequences, both positive and negative.

  2. tbrant09

    Williams is claiming the her husband died from smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day for over 40 years and that it is Phillip Morris’ fault since they used to claim that they were bad for you. It is difficult for us to understand this since we have grown up in an era where the surgeon general puts a warning label right on the box and there are frequent tv commercials telling of the harmful affects of cigarettes. But there was a time when tobacco companies advertised cigarettes in a positive sense and there were not any of these anti-tobacco organizations. With regards to this case Jesse William’s widow does have a case since the tobacco companies never warned him of the ill effects of cigarettes, however she has no right to defend the other people who may have been affected by Phillip Morris. I can’t beleive that the justices were so divided in their decision.

  3. andrewco

    I find it somewhat interesting that it was a 5-4 ruling. For Phillip Morris to just skim beneath the radar on what would have been a pretty big chunk of change, it should make them aware that they need to be covering themselves further, to prevent cases like this from even arising by using more warning labels, etc. There are hundreds of organizations out there that outright say that smoking kills, smoking is bad, yadayada….But the people that are already smoking, quite frankly, just don’t care about those advertisements. Most of them are probably already addicted, and it’d be very difficult for them to stop anyway. If families want to preserve the life of their loved ones, they should owe a duty of due care to themselves, by not letting loved ones start and continue smoking. Period.

  4. jtannhau

    Obviously this case was very close considering the supreme court rejected the punitive damage award only by one vote. I didn’t know that people still had claims against Phillip Morris considering they have so many warning labels on their cigarettes now. If they were to have awarded Jesse Williams the money, does that mean on behalf of common law they would have to offer anybody else suffering from a smoking related disease/injury would be entitled to this type of money? I’m assuming from the fact that Phillip Morris requested a cap on punitive damages that they are used to being charged for punitive damages.

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