WASHINGTON (CNN) - Tobacco giant Philip Morris lost another round Tuesday in a nearly $80 million punitive damages case that morphed into a increasingly complex, decade-long dispute between U.S. Supreme Court justices and their state counterparts in Oregon.
In a one-sentence opinion, the justices Tuesday threw out the latest appeal, essentially ending the tobacco company's appeals over the amount of the jury award, without ruling on the larger legal issues. Those issues deal with how the Oregon Supreme Court dealt with direction from the U.S. Supreme Court on how to handle the case.
The original question before the high court was the power of juries to impose large punitive awards against well-heeled corporations in certain product-liability lawsuits. Several business groups expressed early disappointment those larger legal questions were not addressed.
The case was brought by the widow of a longtime smoker who sued the nation's largest cigarette maker, owned by Altria Group International.
The nation's highest court had taken the latest appeal in essence to consider whether their two previous rulings on this contentious issue were essentially ignored by state courts.
In February 2007, the justices for the second time threw out the multimillion-dollar jury award, and ordered Oregon courts to reconsider the case on remand "for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
The Oregon Supreme Court then upheld the damages without considering the Larger constitutional questions, saying it found a legal defect in the jury instructions from the original trial.
Legal experts said the court was in a difficult position trying to balance its constitutional authority, while preserving a state court's power to manage its own procedural rules.
"The problem that I think we all have is how to guard against making constitutional decisions which are simply going to be nullified by some clever device" from a state court, said Justice David Souter during December's oral arguments, "raising a procedural issue or an issue of state law."
His comment echoed the deepening concern from many on the bench on whether they needed to rule now on the legal issues.
The case involved a building custodian who died in 1997 after having smoked as many as three packs of cigarettes per day for 47 years. His wife sued Philip Morris, manufacturer of the popular Marlboro brand.
The Oregon jury originally awarded the man's estate $800,000 in compensatory damages and almost 100 times that in punitive damages, saying the company engaged in fraud and negligence over five decades. Much of the money, under state law, was to go to a special fund helping victims of crime.
That aspect of the case can now be reconsidered by the state courts, if Philip Morris decides to further appeal.
The punitive award has never been paid, pending the outcome of the appeals. With accrued interest, the company said in legal briefs, the damages now exceed $145 million.
Many business interests had hoped for a clear legal standard on how juries should deal with punitive damage cases, when questions arise over the level of liability and the amount of money they would subject to pay.
Such a clarifying standard would have applied in a range of criminal and civil appeals, as the high court frequently throws a case back to state courts For reconsideration.
The case is Philip Morris USA v. Williams (07-1216).