Philip Morris v Mayola Williams
Some court cases can take a while. With a very few words the US Supreme Court has, today, 31st March 2009, finally brought an end to a case which has been running since 1997.
The short order issued by the court threw out the latest, and apparently the last, appeal in a manner which suggests the judges did not wish to consider matters arising from the long-running case any longer.
The ruling allows for record damages to be paid to an individual smoker. The damages are split into two amounts, compensatory damages and punitive damages. Philip Morris requested the Supreme Court to set a limit on punitive damages, a move which might have been welcomed by other litigants, but the court refused to do this at an earlier stage.
Robert Peck, the Washington lawyer who has represented Mrs Williams, said today “This is a testament to sticking to principle and pursuing a case to its end.”
Mayola Williams brought the action against Philip Morris, the firm which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, after her husband died from lung cancer. She alleged that the company was responsible for her husband’s death and she will now finally receive payment of the damages awarded to her. The damages, with interest at 9%, now total around $150 million, although under Oregon state law she will only receive 40% of that sum while the other 60% goes to the state. There is still a chance that the state’s share will not be paid. That part of the case will rumble on in a lower court but essentially today marks the end of Mrs Williams’ fight for justice for her late husband.
Jesse Williams was a school janitor who smoked around three packets of cigarettes a day for about 50 years. He died, aged 67, in 1997. Mrs Williams alleged that the cigarette manufacturer had given her husband fraudulent assurances that their products were safe.
The Oregon high court made its first decision in 2002, refusing to hear an appeal from Philip Morris.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the judgment of nearly $80 million, saying in another case that damages generally should be held to no more than nine times actual economic damages. It declined, however, to make that a firm rule.
Next, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the punitive damages, citing “extraordinarily reprehensible” conduct by Philip Morris officials.
Then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s second take on the case. In 2007, the court said in a 5-4 decision that jurors may punish a defendant only for harm done to someone who is suing, not other smokers who could make similar claims.
The state court was told to reconsider the award in the context of instructions for the trial jury that Philip Morris proposed and the trial judge rejected.
In January, the Oregon court said there were other defects in the instructions that violated Oregon law, and supported the trial judge’s decision not to give the proposed instructions to the jury.
“Pursuing a case to its end.” It sure is.
This is the order issued by the Supreme Court:-
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
PHILIP MORRIS USA INC., PETITIONER v. MAYOLA
WILLIAMS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ES-
TATE OF JESSE D. WILLIAMS, DECEASED
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF
[March 31, 2009]
The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted.
It is so ordered.