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Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Smoke Gets in Their Eyes

This week the Supreme Court delivered the first of several eagerly anticipated opinions of the term. As we reported in October, in Philip Morris USA v. Williams, the Court was called upon to decide the constitutionality of a punitive damages award levied against Philip Morris by the Oregon state courts. A jury awarded the widow of a man who died after smoking Marlboros all of his life $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the verdict after a number of appeals. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the decision of the Oregon high court in a thoroughly confusing 5-4 decision.

As we predicted, the opinion produced some unusual alliances on the Court. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Souter, Kennedy, and Alito. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Thomas and Scalia dissented.

The majority sidestepped the question of whether or not the punitive damage award was excessive. They did, however, consider the idea of punishment meted out by a jury. The majority said that a jury can consider harm to parties not directly involved in the suit -- in this case, the thousands of Oregonians who may have suffered death or illness as a consequence of Big Tobacco policies designed to cover up the truth about the dangers of smoking -- in order to determine the “reprehensibility” of a defendant’s actions. In the next breath, however, the Court asserted that punitive damages cannot be used to punish that same defendant for any injury it inflicts on individuals who are not party to the specific suit in question. Huh? Or, as Justice Stevens stated in his dissent, “This nuance eludes me.”

Of course, Chief Justice Roberts’ and Justice Alito’s votes were the most eagerly anticipated in this case, as they had not previously weighed in on the issue of punitive damages awards. This decision may not say much about their views, but some commentators have been wondering about whether the new justices’ pro-business leanings will be a stronger influence on their rulings than other conservative doctrines, such as states’ rights. While it is clearly difficult to draw broad conclusions from this confusing decision, it will be interesting to see how the newest justices rule in cases involving the interests of big business in the future.

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