South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Punitive Damages May Not Punish Defendant for Harm to Nonparties
Description

Supreme Court held it a violation of due process for a jury to impose a large punitive damage award in a suit against a cigarette maker held responsible for the death of a smoker. Applying punitive damages for injuries suffered by persons not a party to the suit is improper.

Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words

Due Process; Punitive Damages; Negligence; Deceit

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

After Jesse Williams, a heavy smoker, died, his widow sued Philip Morris for negligence and deceit in state court. The plaintiff’s attorney told the jury to think about how many other people had been harmed by Philip Morris. The jury found that death was caused by smoking and that Williams thought smoking was safe because of deceit by Philip Morris. The jury also found negligence on the part of Philip Morris and awarded $821,000 compensatory damages plus $79.5 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the damages to $500,000 and $32 million. The Oregon appeals court and supreme court reinstated the jury verdict. Philip Morris appealed.

Decision

Vacated and remanded. A punitive damages award based in part on a jury’s desire to punish a defendant for harming people not a party to the suit amounts to a taking of property from the defendant without due process. The Due Process Clause forbids a state to use a punitive damage award to punish a defendant for injuries inflicted on strangers to the litigation. A defendant cannot defend against such a charge and would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damage equation.

Citation

Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057 (Sup. Ct., 2007)

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