United States Supreme Court building
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Philip Morris finally appears to have cleared the tobacco-lawsuit decks. As predicted several months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court today threw out one of the last remaining state-based lawsuits against cigarette-maker Philip Morris and parent company Altria. It wasn't exactly on the grounds that the company had been seeking. But it was still Philip Morris's second major win at the U.S. Supreme Court in less than three months. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the original $79.5 million in punitive damages awarded to an Oregon widow in the so-called Williams case could not stand. The court ruled that the jury had not been given adequate instructions about awarding such damages. Authoring justice Stephen Breyer said state courts must guard against juries "seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers." Breyer said jurors can punish "reprehensible conduct that causes harm to many" but may not calculate this harm to justify major damages. Apparently some dissenting justices failed to appreciate this distinction, according to David Savage of the LA Times. Joining Breyer in the majority were Justices Roberts, Alito, Souter and Kennedy. Two of the court's liberals - Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens - and two of its most conservative members - Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - dissented. Philip Morris originally appealed the case not on the basis of jury instruction but because of the punitive damages allowed by the Oregon Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled three years ago that punitive damages exceeding the personal award by more than ten times may be unconstitutional. The widow in the Williams case originally received personal damages of $821,000, about one ninety-seventh of the punitive damages award of $79.5 million. This Supreme Court victory for Philip Morris comes less than three months after its last major win on the tobacco-suit front. That decision left intact an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that tossed Madison County's $10.1 billion punitive damages award against Philip Morris over the marketing of "light" cigarettes. Legal observers say tobacco companies' recent wins are part of a shift in the U.S. over recent years away from large civil and class-action lawsuits. They say federal and state tort reforms over that time have helped stem the tide.