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Philip Morris USA v. Williams

Docket No.: 05-1256
Certiorari Granted: 5/30/2006
Argued: October 31, 2006
Decided: February 20, 2007

Topics:

Due Process, murder

PartyNames: Philip Morris USA v. Mayola Williams, Personal Representative of the Estate of Jesse D. Williams, Deceased
Petitioner: Philip Morris USA
Respondent: Williams

Court Below: Supreme Court of Oregon

Philip Morris USA
v.
Williams
549 U.S. 346 (2007)
Background:

In this case brought by the widow of a smoker, the jury held Philip Morris liable for fraud and awarded ยง79.5 million in punitive damages -- 97 times the compensatory damages awarded by the jury. On remand from this Court for reconsideration in light of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003), the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the trial court's refusal to instruct the jury that it could not punish Philip Morris for harms to nonparties, concluding that a jury may punish for such harms so long as the conduct that caused those harms is similar to the conduct that harmed the plaintiff. Then, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court proceeded to hold that the punitive award was not unconstitutionally excessive, despite concluding that the punitive award was not reasonably related to the harm to the plaintiff. The questions presented, each of which is the subject of a conflict in the lower courts, are:

Consideration Limited:

LIMITED TO QUESTIONS 1 AND 2 PRESENTED BY THE PETITION.

Question Presented:

1. Whether, in reviewing a jury's award of punitive damages, an appellate court's conclusion that a defendant's conduct was highly reprehensible and analogous to a crime can "override" the constitutional requirement that punitive damages be reasonably related to the plaintiffs harm. 2. Whether due process permits a jury to punish a defendant for the effects of its conduct on non-parties. 3. Whether, in reviewing a punitive award for excessiveness, an appellate court is permitted to give the plaintiff the benefit of all conceivable inferences that might support a finding of high reprehensibility even if the jury made no such specific factual findings.

Holding: judgment vacated and remanded
Vote: 5-4
Opinion By:
Read PHILIP MORRIS USA V. WILLIAMS opinion (PDF)

Read opinion
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