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Supreme Court Rejects Cigarette Award Case

BY Admin  March 20, 2006 at 3:14 PM EDT

Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette company, called the award “unconstitutionally excessive.”

The Supreme Court justices declined to comment on why they rejected the appeal.

The lawsuit against Philip Morris was originally filed in California by Richard Boeken, who, according various reports, smoked two packs a day for decades. Doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer in 1999. He continued to smoke until he died in 2002 at age 57.

Boeken smoked Marlboros and Marlboro Lights — and argued that Philip Morris misled him and other consumers about the dangers of smoking.

A jury in Los Angeles originally awarded Boeken $3 billion in punitive damages — in addition to $5.5 million in compensatory damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $100 million.

A California state court further reduced the punitive damage award to $50 million, according to Reuters. Then both Philip Morris and Boeken appealed to the Supreme Court.

Philip Morris told the Supreme Court that it shouldn’t be held responsible under state law for providing more information about the dangers of smoking beyond the federal mandated warnings that they already print on the plastic casings of cigarette packs. The label says, for example, Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.

Philip Morris also said that awarding $50 million in punitive damages to a single plaintiff was “unconstitutionally excessive.”

Lawyers for Boeken’s family agreed that the Supreme Court should review the punitive damage judgment to clarify what constitutes “gross excessiveness.”

Family attorneys said in a separate appeal that the Supreme Court should clarify that a defendant’s illicit profit and misconduct represented an important factor in reviewing awards of punitive damages, reported Reuters.

The prosecution challenged a presumption — which comes from a 2003 Supreme Court ruling — that stipulates that a punitive damage award should not exceed a compensatory damage award by a 9-to-1 ratio. Attorneys said larger ratios may deter future misconduct.