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Big Victory for Big Tobacco

Big tobacco won a big victory yesterday, as the High Court Rejects $79.5 Million Award in the Philip Morris Case (, 2/21/07). In its 5-4 decision in Philip Morris v. Mayola Williams, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, held that the jury's verdict violated the Due Process clause of the Constitution because jurors had been permitted to consider harm suffered by other smokers, who weren't parties to the case, in assessing punitive damages. Wrote Breyer:

In our view, the Constitution's Due Process Clause forbids a State to use a punitive damages award to punish a defendant for injury that it inflicts upon nonparties or those whom they directly represent, i.e., injury that it inflicts upon those who are, essentially, strangers to the litigation. For one thing, the Due Process Clause prohibits a State from punishing an individual without first providing that individual with "an opportunity to present every available defense." Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U. S. 56, 66 (1972) (internal quotation marks omitted). Yet a defendant threatened with punishment for injuring a nonparty victim has no opportunity to defend against the charge, by showing, for example in a case such as this, that the other victim was not entitled to damages because he or she knew that smoking was dangerous or did not rely upon the defendant's statements to the contrary.

For another, to permit punishment for injuring a nonparty victim would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damages equation. How many such victims are there? How seriously were they injured? Under what circumstances did injury occur? The trial will not likely answer such questions as to nonparty victims. The jury will be left to speculate...

Justices Ginsburg, Thomas, Scalia and Stevens dissented separately. Justice Ginsburg (joined by all but Stevens in her dissent) had no problem with with allowing a jury to consider harm to others in assessing punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant for the "reprehensibility" of is action. Justice Stevens objected to the court's attempt to impose limits on a state's ability to impose punitive damages, while Justice Thomas emphasized that the Constitution does not constrain the size of punitive damages. And in fact, some corporate interests expressed disappointment with the court's ruling because it bypassed the issue of whether the Constitution requires some numerical limitation on damages (the dissenters have already made clear that they don't agree).

As for blog-related commentary, check out the SCOTUS Blog Round Up of articles and commentary on the case; Prawfs Blawg's comments about the difficulty of distinguishing between a jury's ability to consider reprehensibility (which is permitted) and damage to others (which is not) and Sentencing Law & Policy's commentary on the implications of the Philip Morris decision in criminal cases.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 21, 2007 at 07:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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