Los Angeles, Dec. 19 (Reuters): A California judge today slashed a record $28 billion jury award against cigarette maker Philip Morris Cos. to a comparatively paltry $28 million, calling the punitive damages “legally excessive.”
Philip Morris, the number one tobacco company, said it still planned to appeal the verdict and expects the process to take several years.
A jury ordered the company in October to pay $28 billion in punitive damages to 64-year-old Betty Bullock, a woman suffering from terminal lung cancer who blamed the company for failing to warn her of the risks of smoking. In a written ruling, Judge Warren Ettinger, of California Superior Court for Los Angeles county, slashed the damages, but turned down the company’s bid for a new trial. He said a new trial on punitive damages would be ordered if Bullock refuses the reduced judgment.
The jury had also awarded Bullock $750,000 for compensation of medical expenses and loss of earnings and $100,000 for pain and suffering — but the punitive damages were 33,000 times those amounts, a ratio deemed by Ettinger to be excessive.
In a statement, Philip Morris said the new ratio is nearly 33 to 1, well in excess of the four-to-one ratio the US Supreme Court has suggested approaches the constitutional limit of such awards.
“A critical element was what the plaintiff knew about the health risks of smoking ... the evidence was clear that Bullock was aware of the risks and never relied, to her detriment, on anything the company said or did,” William Ohlemeyer, the company’s associate general counsel, said in a statement.
The previous record for punitive damages had been $3 billion awarded by a Los Angeles jury last year to Richard Boeken, a smoker who later died.