Today, December 3, 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in a key tobacco case involving punitive damages against the tobacco company, Philip Morris in an individual smoker’s suit whose judgment dates back to 1999. The case is Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Williams ( 07-1216) and it is for the third time that the Supreme Court is confronted with this case.
A brief background to the case: after her husband died of lung cancer in 1997 from smoking cigarettes manufactured by Philip Morris, Mayola Williams sued Philip Morris for strict product liability, fraud and negligence.
The jury awarded Williams $79.5 million dollars in punitive damages. The trial court, however, rejected Philip Morris’s request for a jury instruction on punitive damages which stated that Philip Morris could not be punished for harms suffered by nonparties.
The case has been back and forth in the Supreme Court of US and the Oregon Supreme Court. The latter has repeatedly upheld the judgment. The most recent ruling, in January, followed a high court decision last year that said jurors may punish a defendant only for harm done to someone who is suing, not other smokers who could make similar claims.
The US Supreme Court Justices () will, tomorrow consider whether the Oregon Supreme Court in essence ignored the U.S. high court’s ruling ( in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell). The Us Supreme Court will not consider whether the amount of the punitive damages is constitutionally allowed.
It will be interesting to see whether the US Supreme Court will be swayed by Philip Morris argument calling for the Justices to order a new trial as a remedy if it is found that the Oregon Court ignored the US High court ruling. From a global health law point of view, the idea of ordering new trial is a clever delaying tactic by the tobacco industry to delay frustrate litigation and ultimately discourage future suits against the tobacco industry by individuals in the US and elsewhere around the world where Philip Morris’ tobacco products are marketed and sold and are causing disease, disability and death.
Amicus curiae brief for Public Justice, P.C., The Tobacco Legal Control Consortium, The Tobacco Products Liability Project, The Tobacco Control Resource Center, Public Health Advocacy Institute, The Tobacco Trial Lawyers Association, and the American Association for Justice in Support of Respondent.