In the majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court ruled that the jury could only punish Philip Morris for the damage done to the plaintiff’s husband, Jesse Williams, and not for the damage done to all smokers.
The court did not make any judgment as to whether or not the jury award was excessive.
In the original case in Oregon, the jury had awarded Mayola Williams $821,000 in compensation for her husband’s death from smoking two packs of cigarettes daily. The jury also added the punitive award because of what the jurors called a “massive market-directed fraud” aimed at deceiving smokers of the harmful affects of cigarettes.
Breyer wrote that states must “provide assurances that juries are not asking the wrong question … seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers.”
The court agreed with the attorneys representing the tobacco company, who argued that the jury should have punished Philip Morris only for the death of Williams, and that other victims would have to prove their cases separately. Citing the due process clause of the Constitution, the court said that the company should not be held responsible for damages done to “strangers to the litigation.”
The victory for Altria Group Inc., the corporation that now operates Philip Morris USA, was the latest in a recent string of cases in which the court has attempted to rein in punitive awards, which are permitted by various state laws where the original trial takes place.
This was the first such case for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both of whom ruled with the majority along with Justices Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority opinion.
In the dissenting opinion, Stevens wrote that the court’s ruling was too nuanced, and asked jurors to make too narrow a distinction between the plaintiff and other third-party victims.