In the ever advancing battle between big business and the court systems, a $79.5 million settlement against the tobacco industry awarded to a smoker’s widow was thrown out by the Supreme Court with a 5-4 ruling.
Altria Group Inc’s Philip Morris USA saw a victory in a long line of recent losses in the court system as the Supreme court overturned the Oregon Supreme Court’s upholding of the ruling.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer stated that the verdict could not stand because the jury was not properly prepared. In the instance of punitive damages, the jury must be instructed to consider the damage caused to the victim not any number of strangers. The actual constitutional bearing of the award was not mentioned in the ruling. With Justice Breyer were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Samuel Alito.
The dissenting Justices were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.
The widow in question, Mayola Williams, sued the Tobacco companies 9 years ago after her husband and 45 year long smoker Jesse Williams died of lung cancer. Her argument was that the Tobacco companies defrauded the American public with an untruthful mass-market campaign to wrangle smokers and believed the verdict should be upheld as a message to big business that they have a responsibility to their customers.
For years Jesse Williams ignored the Surgeon general’s warnings printed on the cigarette labels, saying that the cigarette companies claimed they were safe. However, the tobacco industry argued that only damages to the widow in question could be rewarded and not to anyone who might have been affected.
There has long been an interest by both big business and the legal system on the upholding of punitive damages rewarded for companies’ malfeasance. The Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, the Auto Industry, and many more have spoken in favor of tighter restrictions against the rewarding of massive punitive damages in such cases.
Special attention was paid to this case because of the presence of the two new Justices on the court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, many wondering if their presence would affect the previous rulings that the Supreme Court has made in similar cases. With both Justices ruling in the majority, a position upholding prior decisions, there was no indication that a shift in Supreme Court policy would occur on this issue.