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Matthew Bergmann
Matthew Bergmann
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Ruling Against Big Tobacco Thrown Out

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A ruling that awarded nearly $80 million to the family of an Oregon man who died from a smoking-related disease has been reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Arguments and ultimatley the decision, in the case of Phillip Morris USA v. Williams, focused on what amount of puntitive damages juries can award against tobacco and other well-off companies in product-liability suits. In making their determination, justices followed recent precedent that puntive damages should be viewed as “actual” damages.

The case came to the U.S. Supreme Court after an Oregon jury had awarded $79.5 million to the estate of Jesse Williams, a cleaning custodian who smoked three packs per day for 47 years, until his death in 1997. Prior to that award Williams’ estate was granted $800,000 in compensatory damages in 1991. As a basis for the punitive damage award, jurors in Oregon concluded that Phillip Morris engaged in fraud and negligence, which affected numerous people over a span of more than fifty years. Initially, the trial judge had reduced the puntive damages amount to $32 million, but higher state courts found cause to award the original amount.

Attorneys for Phillip Morris argued that a jury should be allwoed to punish a tobacco company by giving damages to a smoker’s widow, but not other smokers. Attorneys for Williams’ estate contended that argued that the family of a longtime smoker deserved compensation based only on individual harm, not harm to the public at large.

Justice Stephen Breyer penned the majority opinion. He was aided by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter.

Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.