| Major ruling
Washington, Feb. 20 (AP): The US supreme court threw out a $79.5 million (euro60.5 million) punitive damages award to a smoker’s widow today, a boon to businesses seeking stricter limits on big-dollar jury verdicts.
The 5-4 ruling was a victory for Altria Group Inc’s Philip Morris USA, which contested an Oregon supreme court decision that had upheld the verdict.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said the verdict could not stand because the jury in the case was not instructed that it could punish Philip Morris only for harm done to the plaintiff, not to other smokers whose cases were not before it.
States must “provide assurances that juries are not asking the wrong question ... seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers,” Breyer said.
The decision did not address whether the size of the award was constitutionally excessive, as Philip Morris had asked.
Punitive damages are money intended to punish a defendant for its behaviour and to deter repetition.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, joined with Breyer.
Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.
Mayola Williams sued Philip Morris for fraud on behalf of her husband, a two-pack-a-day smoker of Marlboro cigarettes for 45 years. Jesse Williams died of lung cancer nine years ago.
Marlboros are Philip Morris’s best-selling cigarette. Williams argued the jury award was appropriate because it punishes Philip Morris’s misconduct for a decades-long “massive market-directed fraud” that misled people into thinking cigarettes were not dangerous or addictive.
Her husband, Williams said, never gave any credence to surgeon general health warnings about smoking cigarettes because tobacco companies insisted they were safe. Only after falling sick did Williams tell his wife: “Those darn cigarette people finally did it. They were lying all the time.”