March 31st, 2009
11:00 AM ET
2 years ago

Big Tobacco loses another high court appeal in smoker lawsuit

Tobacco giant Philip Morris lost another round Tuesday.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris lost another round Tuesday.

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).


Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. puzzled

    I think this is plain stupid. For years people have been warned that if you smoke you could get cancer. Why penailize the company for something some one willingly and knowingly did?

    March 31, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  2. Scott AZ

    I believe the Feds should be sued too as a co-conspirator along with the tabacco industry, they're allowing a know deadly cancer causing product to be sold and reaping the taxes it brings in. If a prescription drug were being sold that kills over 160,000 people per year, it would be removed from the pharmacies asap!

    March 31, 2009 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  3. To Puzzled

    The only reason anyone was ever warned was due to lawsuits like this one. This lawsuit started over 10 years ago. Its a well known fact that the tobacco companies were well aware of the addictive properties of nicotene and used that info to then market cigarettes to folks under 23 in order to get them hooked before it was too late. Their research even went as far as to show that over 23 folks just don't seem to start smoking. This guy got hooked when he was young on purpose by the tobacco companies. ON PURPOSE! Therefore, they acted with complete disregard for our health... this guy's health... so his spouse sued and won and rightly so!!!

    March 31, 2009 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  4. Spider

    I have to agree with you puzzled. But, there's even more to consider. Any scientist or physician in this line of work and/or research will tell you that they do not know what causes cancer. Statistics tend to lean towards smoking being a contributing factor, but there's no factual data. Yet, laws banning smoking and punitive damages, based on this unsubstantiated evidence, are everywhere. When the powers that be get us all to quit smoking and, as a consequence, destroy the tobacco industry, it will be interesting to revisit the statistics. Wonder if the drop in lung cancer with be precipitous or negligible? But then, we U.S. citizens aren't intelligent enough to make our own decisions or actually read vague warnings. We must be lead by the hand through the dangers of this world.

    March 31, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  5. Scott

    Anyone who smokes knows the risks. Time for people to take responsibility for their actions.

    March 31, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  6. Shadowself

    @ puzzled
    Why penalize a company for something someone willingly and knowingly did? Simple. These companies for many years put forth massive marketing and legal campaigns claiming that their products were *NOT* addictive nor did they cause negative health effects - all the while having significant amounts of data in their own archives that showed just the opposite (that their products did indeed cause addiction and had significant negative health effects). Surprisingly, many people bought into these lies. The repeated lies over the years is the basis for the lawsuits.

    March 31, 2009 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  7. Roland

    It really confuses me when here they sell you something (Cigarettes) that the medical experts and our politicians know that this is deadly eventually but when it come to give people the right to smoke pot which is known not to have nearly as many side effects as Cigarettes and the government says no to this because there are health issues, really and Booze and Cigarettes don't. How interesting !

    March 31, 2009 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  8. Alfred E. Neumann

    Looks like AIG may be managing the tobacco industry's campaign – the worst of both worlds.

    March 31, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  9. mario

    And the taxes on tabacco keeps rising...think it might be time to quit!

    March 31, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  10. Baze

    How the heck can you sue in the case of someone that smoked THREE PACKS OF CIGARETTES a day for FORTY SEVEN YEARS?!?!?!?? That's over A MILLION TOTAL CIGARETTES!!! Plus, how do you even find the time in the course of twenty-four hours to smoke over sixty cigarettes? My wife is up my behind when I smoke three cigarettes per day, let alone three per hour, and we all know that this guy was probably awake on average ten hours per day. So you mean to tell me that he was smoking six cigarettes per hour, or even worse, he had binging moments where he smoked twice or three times that amount in a shorter span of time? THIS IS B.S.!!!! This guy wanted to die!

    March 31, 2009 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  11. J in NJ

    This is one example of the absolute stupidity in DC. The government uses the tax dollars of smokers and non-smokers to subsidize tobacco farmers in the USA. Then we run around preaching the evils of tobacco!?! On top of all that we then tax tobacco in order to pay for shildren's healthcare (SCHIP). How about we save all the money from the subsidy and the anti-smoking campaigns and give the money directly to healthcare!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 31, 2009 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  12. MikeTre

    puzzled? Have you ever heard of addiction? I say burn the companies to the ground...Arrrg.....

    March 31, 2009 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  13. Michael M, Phoenix AZ

    Anyone that smokes is really really stupid. Unfortunately there are still too many under the age of 18 who still think its "cool" to smoke.

    March 31, 2009 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  14. Spider

    Years ago smokers made the statement, "It's my body, I can do what I want with it." That sentence ended any argument with an individual uncomfortable with smoking.

    Then came the dangers of second hand smoke. The American people were presented with reports stating; "Last year there were 10,000 deaths due to lung cancer. 6000 of those cases were smokers. Therefore, second hand smoke caused the deaths of 4000 people." Research it folks. That is what the original reports on second hand smoke stated.

    That is not science. But, those who hated smoking, jumped on those statistics and now we all believe second hand smoke is a killer.

    Here's some additional information, sheep. Lately, when those same statistics are gathered, due to fewer people smoking today, the results are a little different. Now, if there's 10,000 people die of lung cancer, only about 4000 are smokers. Instead of presenting those numbers as what they are, an indication that smoking is not the only reason people get lung cancer, the powers to be are now actually teaching our children that second hand smoke is worse than first hand smoke.

    Not only do they present us with trash science and get us to believe it, but they continue to bastardize the facts and we continue to believe them. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, folks.

    March 31, 2009 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  15. Joseph, Los Angeles

    The prices in Los Angeles went up dramatically... I know the tobacco company needs money to pay these suites, but paying $5.00 for a pack of Marlboro was to much for me to handle yesterday. After so many years of smoking, it's time to quit. Not just for the money, although the new prices are a strong incentive, but for my health. I can do this...

    March 31, 2009 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  16. Mississippi Mike

    If someone smokes today, they can't say they didn't know it was harmful. This is like me suing Nike because I got shin splints running in their shoes.

    March 31, 2009 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  17. S Callahan

    Scotts got that right, and so should the states.
    As a person who suffers lung disease it irks me more than anything the lies that have taken place over the years. I say good for the widow that one..but in truth..the only win for her would be having her husband by her side.

    March 31, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  18. S Callahan

    You've got that wrong Mike...cigarettes are worse than herione...
    addictive power that is.....there are many still smoking who didn't know the consequence when they began...the addictive factor is too strong for some to overcome, not to mention the physiological factors that have changed.

    March 31, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  19. VICTIM OF CENSORSHIP

    I have an idea, lets raise the cigarette tax! Heck it seems to be the answer to every problem that comes along these days! Maybe if they raise the cigarette tax high enough they'll be able to cure Cancer or AIDS or maybe even end world hunger or find Bin Laden!

    March 31, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  20. Laurie, Northern California

    I am thrilled about this result.

    The Williams family has been fighting these appeals for over 10 years.
    It is about time that they receive this money. It won't bring their husband and father back but at least they will feel like justice is served by this verdict.

    Philip Morris and the other tobacco companies have been found to be racketeers a few years ago because of their despicable behavior. The research on the tobacco companies documents shows they have been deceiving the public for years.

    They have lied about the dangers of tobacco and the addictiveness of it. Most people start smoking as teens and disregard the U.S. Surgeon General warnings thinking "It won't happen to me."
    Over the years they get more and more addicted and want to believe the tobacco companies lies. One of the lies the tobacco companies have misled people about is that smoking "light" cigarettes is not as dangerous as smoking regular cigarettes. Unstead of quitting smoking people think they are safer if they smoke light cigarettes. Well, it's been proven false.

    The tobacco companies were forced to put the warnings on cigarettes by the government. They didn't do it on their own. If you notice the warnings have said "The Surgeon General" has said, not the tobacco companies have said. They want people to disbelieve the warnings and continue smoking.

    Philip Morris is the most despicable of all the companies and deserve to be sued and have judgments against them for their past behavior.

    March 31, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |