The Roberts Court (2005–present)


In what decision did the Roberts Court examine a large punitive damage award imposed on a tobacco company?

The Roberts Court ruled 5–4 in Philip Morris USA v. Williams (2007) that $79.5 million in punitive damages against a tobacco company must be set aside because the Oregon courts allowed for consideration of damages to other smokers who were not parties to the actual litigation. Following the death of lifelong smoker Jesse Williams, his widow, Mayola, filed a lawsuit against Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, the brand her late husband had smoked. She alleged that the company knowingly and falsely deceived her husband into believing that smoking cigarettes was not harmful. A jury awarded her $821,000 in compensatory damages (damages designed to compensate a plaintiff for the actual harm they have suffered) and $79.5 million in punitive damages (damages designed to harm the wrongdoer).

Philip Morris argued that the damage award was so excessive that it violated its rights under the Due Process Clause. One of Philip Morris’s arguments was that allowing the jury to take into consideration damages to other people amounted to a “taking of property” from the company without due process. It pointed out that it could not argue applicable defenses that may have been appropriate in possible claims asserted by nonparties (other smokers). The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the $79.5-million award was within the province of the jury and was not unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that “the Constitution’s Due Process Clause forbids a State to use a punitive damage award to punish a defendant for injury upon nonparties or those whom they directly represent.” The majority said that trial courts must issue instructions to ensure that in determining punitive damages, jurors not punish defendants for harm caused “strangers to the litigation.” A jury can take into account the fact that the defendant’s conduct hurt other people in determining reprehensibility, but the majority viewed this as different from actually awarding damages based on harm caused other people. Four justices dissented, with three of them—John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—writing their own opinions.

Nebraska physician LeRoy Carhart, founder of Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska, was involved in two Supreme Court cases involving restrictions on abortion. Steve Liss/Getty Images.

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