Supreme Court answers the $79 million questions: No and no

By Lori Irish Bauman
February 20, 2007

Two cases making legal news have a few things in common:  they were both tried in Portland, the juries in each case punished the defendants by assessing $79 million in damages (give or take half a million), and today both cases were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Philip Morris v. Williams, the products liability plaintiff obtained a $79.5 million punitive damages verdict against the cigarette manufacturer.  The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that the Due Process clause of the Constitution prohibits punitive damages awards that punish defendant for harm inflicted on any party other than plaintiff.  In a bit of constitutional hair-splitting, the Court stated that a plaintiff can offer evidence of harm to non-parties to show that the wrongful conduct was reprehensible, but the jury can't use that evidence to punish defendant for the harm caused to others.  How to ensure that juries don't cross the line?  It's up to the states to figure that out, according to the court, beginning with the Oregon Supreme Court as it will again take up the Williams case.  See the Oregon Business Litigation Blog's earlier coverage of the case here and here.

In Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons Hardwood Lumber Co., the Supreme Court threw out a novel antitrust theory that had resulted in a verdict of $ 26 million, trebled by law to $79 million.  Plaintiffs claimed that Weyerhaeuser had engaged in an unlawful monopsony -- or buyer-side monopoly -- by bidding up the price of alder logs (as input for its mills) to levels higher than other mills could afford to pay, thereby putting those mills out of business.  This theory is called predatory bidding.  The unanimous court held that to prove predatory bidding, plaintiff must show that (1) bidding up the price of the input caused the price of the resulting output to exceed the revenues generated by the sale of that output, and (2) defendant has a dangerous probability of recouping the resulting losses  by exercising its monopsony power once competitors are run out of business. 

At trial, Judge Owen Panner did not require plaintiff to make such a stringent showing, instructing the jury that plaintiff was required to show only that Weyerhaeuser had bid the cost of logs above a "fair price."  The Supreme Court reversed the verdict resulting from that instruction.  See the Oregon Business Litigation Blog's earlier coverage of the case here, here,  and here.

Find other law blog coverage of today's rulings here and here.

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