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Supreme Court Dismisses Philip Morris Appeal

Source: WSJ

Posted on 31 Mar 2009

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Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris unit lost a final chance Tuesday in the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a $79.5 million punitive-damages ruling against it from a case involving a smoker's death.

The high court dismissed the Philip Morris appeal without issuing an opinion, ending the third appeal the company had secured before the Supreme Court in its fight to reign in an award by an Oregon jury.

The Supreme Court's dismissal also means no new legal precedent was set on punitive damages, a development that is likely to disappoint business groups that have continued to press for additional punitive-damages guidance from the high court.

The dismissal came in a short court order that offered no details on why the appeal was dismissed. No justices dissented from the dismissal.

The $79.5 million judgment against the tobacco giant was issued by an Oregon jury in 1999 and came before the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2007. The high court's prior ruling in the case ordered the damages be brought into compliance with recent high court rulings restricting the size of punitive damage awards.

The justices took the case to consider whether the Oregon Supreme Court ignored its 5-4 decision. The Oregon courts brushed aside orders to reconsider the award by saying Philip Morris couldn't challenge the verdict because it failed to comply with state court procedural rules regarding jury instructions in the case.

Oral arguments in the appeal took place in December. At the session, some justices indicated they thought the Oregon courts may have properly handled the case after the 2007 Supreme Court ruling. Others said they were concerned the Oregon courts had ignored their earlier ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by Mayola Williams, a smoker's widow in Oregon. Her late husband, Jesse, began smoking in 1950 while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 and died the following year. After a state jury trial, Ms. Williams was awarded $821,485 in actual damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages. Altria first appealed the award to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002.