The U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed Philip Morris USA’s appeal of a $79.5 million jury award to a smoker’s widow. Hopefully, this will end the ten-year fight in the courts. In a one-sentence order, the court left in place a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of Mayola Williams. Repeatedly the Oregon court, on numerous opportunities, upheld a verdict against the Altria Group Inc. unit in a fraud trial that took place way back in 1999.
The judgment has grown to just about $150 Million including accrued interest. The justices heard arguments in the case in December. Philip Morris had argued that the award should be thrown out and a new trial ordered because of flaws in the instructions given jurors before their deliberations. Business interests wanted the high court to use the case to set firm limits on the award of punitive damages. The case has been in the appellate courts for ten years and it’s now over. The jury had found that Philip Morris should be held accountable for misleading people into thinking cigarettes weren’t dangerous or addictive.
Ms. Williams’ husband, Jesse, was a janitor in Portland who started smoking while he was in the Army in the 1950s. Mr. Williams died in 1997, six months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. At trial, the widow was awarded $800,000 in actual damages. The punitive damages are about 97 times greater. A state court previously cut the compensatory award to $521,000. Sixty percent of the award will now go to an Oregon crime-victims fund.
The Oregon high court made its first decision in 2002, refusing to hear an appeal from Philip Morris. Then the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the judgment of nearly $80 million, saying in another case that damages generally should be held to no more than nine times actual economic damages. It declined, however, to make that a firm rule. Next, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the punitive damages, citing “extraordinarily reprehensible” conduct by Philip Morris officials. The U.S. Supreme Court then took a second look at the case. In 2007, the court said, in a 5-4 decision, that jurors may punish a Defendant only for harm done to someone who is suing, not other smokers who could make similar claims.
The state court was told to reconsider the award in the context of instructions for the trial jury that Philip Morris proposed, but which were rejected by the trial judge. In January, the Oregon court said there were other defects in the instructions that violated Oregon law, and again supported the trial judge’s decision not to give the proposed instructions to the jury. It’s real good to see this case finally come to a conclusion. Relatively few victims have ever been successful in litigation against the politically-powerful tobacco industry. Ms. Williams and her lawyers are to be commended for seeing this case to an end.
Source: Associated Press
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