U.S. Supreme Court dismisses appeal of Oregon tobacco punitive damages award

By Lori Bauman
March 31, 2009

Mayola Williams' products liability case has completed its third journey to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the Court today dismissed Philip Morris' appeal of a $79.5 million punitive damages award. 

Williams' husband died in 1997 of cancer after years of smoking cigarettes sold by Philip Morris USA.  A Multnomah County jury awarded to Williams $821,485.50 in compensatory damages for wrongful death (later reduced to $521,485) and $79.5 million in puntive damages against Philip Morris.  The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $32 million, but the Oregon Court of Appeals reinstated the jury's award. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in two separate appeals directed the Oregon Supreme Court to reconsider whether the punitive damages were excessive under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.  Last year the Oregon Supreme Court declined to reach the constitutional issue, affirming the punitive damages on state law procedural grounds.

Today's dismissal in Philip Morris USA v. Williams ends the U.S. Supreme Court's inquiry into whether the Oregon Supreme Court properly avoided the Due Process issue in its most recent decision.  The Court's order states it had "improvidently granted" review last June, and as a consequence the punitive damages verdict stands.

See our earlier coverage of the case here and here.

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