High Court Throws Out Award Against Philip Morris

On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court yesterday overturned a $79.5 million jury award against tobacco company Phillip Morris, holding that the damages award violated the company’s due process rights because, the punitive damages award was intended, at least in part, to punish Phillip Morris for harm allegedly cause to persons other than the plaintiff, “strangers to the litigation,” in the words of Justice Stephen Breyer. While the case is good news for Phillip Morris, it isn’t especially clear how helpful the case will be to future litigants, since the majority did not take the opportunity to stake out any sort of numeric limit on ounitive damage awards. The Court did, however, at least lay down the proposition that plaintiffs will not be permitted to try and impose class action-like liability through the back door. One curiosity is the compsition of the majority in the case. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, and was joined by Justices Souter, Kennedy, alito and Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Thomas was joined in dissent by Justices Scalia, Stevens and Ginsburg. Justice Thomas dissented on the grounds that he does not believe that limitations on punitive damages are written into the Constitution. It would appear that, where business issues, and not social issues, are involved, the typical voting patterns don’t mean all that much.

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