The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a $79.5 million punitive damage award against tobacco giant Philip Morris to the widow of a longtime smoker.
Mayola Williams, whose husband died of lung cancer in 1997 after smoking cigarettes for more than 40 years, still will receive $821,000 in compensatory damages, but the high court rebuked the Oregon jury that had awarded sky-high compensatory damages to punish the tobacco firm for the damage it had done in the broadest sense.
The high court is correct. The only puzzle in the case is that it was closely divided, 5-4, in a way that throws most ideological analyses of the Supreme Court into a cocked hat.
Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the majority opinion, to the effect that such a huge punitive damage award — almost 100 times the amount awarded for compensatory damages — amounted to an attempt to punish Philip Morris for damage done to others besides those who had brought the lawsuit. This amounted, Justice Breyer ruled, to taking the corporation’s money (actually its stockholders’ money) without due process.
He was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Souter and Alito.
Dissenting were liberal Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, and conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas.
This decision doesn’t mean Philip Morris will escape any punitive damages in this case, which will probably go to a new trial. But while testimony about harm to others could still be introduced, to show the “reprehensibility” of Philip Morris’ actions, the judge and jury will be instructed not to try to right every wrong the company is alleged to have done.
Although there is little question that tobacco companies lied for a long time about the damage caused by cigarette smoking, we have doubts about holding them liable for every adult smoker who died of a smoking-related disease. Adults who choose to smoke bear some responsibility for their actions. They are not mere pawns of clever advertising, and a wealth of information has been available for a long time about the health consequences of cigarette smoking.
The courts are unlikely to endorse that position, but at least, after this ruling, they will not be able to impose arbitrary punishment through unreasonable punitive damages.