Tobacco case headed to U.S. Supreme Court
PORTLAND, Ore., Dec. 27 (UPI) -- An $80-million jury award against Philip Morris may soon be the first major West Coast tobacco verdict to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oregon's supreme court this week declined to review the award made to the family of the late Jesse Williams in 1999; however Philip Morris indicated it was prepared to make the case the first in a series of high-profile awards made by West Coast juries to reach the nation's high court.
"We continue to believe that the Williams ... verdict should be set aside on a number of legal grounds, including the excessiveness of the punitive damages award, and we are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case and send it back to Oregon for a new trial," William Ohlemeyer, a Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel, said in a news release.
The tobacco industry has been hit with a string of huge punitive damage verdicts in recent tobacco cases in the West that Philip Morris has consistently argued fly in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that limits punitive damages to a 4-to-1 ratio to compensatory damages. The ruling cites the 14th Amendment and its guarantees of due process.
"The U.S. Supreme Court, in reviewing the issue of punitive damages, earlier had indicated a ratio of 4-to-1 may be close to the limits of what is constitutionally permissible," Ohlemeyer said. "Clearly, in this case, punitive damages of $79.5 million bear no reasonable relationship to the $800,000 in compensatory damages awarded."
More than one jury apparently has ignored the mandated ratio and has handed Philip Morris some very expensive defeats.
The Williams case is the second-largest tobacco award in Oregon. A Salem woman was awarded $150 million last March. Meanwhile, a California judge earlier this month reduced a Los Angeles award from $28 billion to $28 million.
The award in the Williams lawsuit had been cut to $32 million by the trial judge, however a state appeals court reinstated the full amount last June. In the ruling, the court rejected Philip Morris' "narrow focus on the ratio between punitive and compensatory damages."
In its decision, the Court of Appeals said the 4-to-1 ratio was not sufficient enough punishment for a well-heeled company such as Philip Morris and it "ignores the underlying purpose for awarding punitive damages, which is to punish and deter a wrongdoer."
"The reprehensibility of the defendant's actions, the number of people affected or potentially affected, and indications that the defendant will not change its actions without punishment are all relevant factors," the court determined.