WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court threw out a cigarette maker’s appeal of a $79.5 million award to a smoker’s widow, likely signaling the end of a 10-year legal fight over the large payout.
In a one-sentence order, the court left in place a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of Mayola Williams. The state court has repeatedly upheld a verdict against Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA in a fraud trial in 1999.
The judgment has grown to more than $145 million with interest.
Williams’ husband Jesse was a janitor in Portland who started smoking during a 1950s Army hitch and died in 1997, six months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
His widow was awarded $800,000 in actual damages. The punitive damages are about 97 times greater. A state court previously cut the compensatory award to $521,000.
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.
The case is Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 07-1216.