Tuesday, October 7, 2003

$80M smoking verdict tossed

Supreme Court asks lower courts to look at Philip Morris case

By Gina Holland
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday threw out an $80 million verdict against cigarette maker Philip Morris.

The verdict, for the family of an Oregon janitor whodied in 1997 of lung cancer, should be reviewed by lower courts to ensure that it is not unconstitutionally excessive, justices said.

The court's action was encouraging for businesses, which hope that another Supreme Court ruling earlier this year will lead to reductions in large punitive damage verdicts.

It was the second victory for Philip Morris in its legal battles with the family of Jesse D. Williams, who accused the company of concealing information about the dangers of smoking. Williams started smoking in the 1950s when serving in the Army in Korea and later smoked three packs of Marlboros a day.

After a jury in 1999 ordered the company to pay the Williams family $79.5 million in punitive damages, the judge reduced the award to $32 million.

A state appeals court reinstated the punitive damages award last year.

The Supreme Court ordered Oregon courts to review the judgment, in light of their ruling earlier this year that a jury went too far in ordering an insurance company to pay $145 million over the way it handled claims from a car accident.

Andrew Frey of Washington, an attorney for Philip Morris, had told the court that like the State Farm judgment, the verdict against Philip Morris was out of line.

Robert Peck of Washington, one of the Williams' lawyers, said that by setting aside the judgment, the Supreme Court would be "inviting every unhappy punitive damage defendant" to file appeals.

Jesse Williams' family said he kept smoking because he did not believe a company would sell something that was truly harmful. The case is Philip Morris v. Williams, 02-1553.

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