Court Ends Philip Morris Appeal of $79.5 Million Award

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WASHINGTON—On Tuesday, the Supreme Court eliminated a cigarette maker’s appeal of a $79.5 million award to a smoker’s widow, ending a 10-year legal fight to keep her from collecting.

The case has seen several appellate courts shortly after Mayola Williams prevailed on March 30, 1999, in the claims of fraud she pursued on behalf of her deceased husband, Jesse.

Jesse Williams, a janitor from Portland, started smoking during a 1950s Army hitch and died in 1997, six months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In a one-sentence order, the court preserved the ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of Mayola Williams. The state court has repeatedly upheld a verdict in a fraud trial in 1999 against Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA.

The judgment has escalated to over $155 million including interest, and Williams stands to collect between $60 million and $65 million, before paying her lawyers and before taxes, said her Washington-based lawyer, Robert Peck.

Arguments were heard by justices in the December case, but Tuesday they said they were not passing judgment on the legal issues that were presented. Rather, it seems that the court had declined to hear the case at all.

Philip Morris argued that the award should be thrown out and begin a new trial because of the errors in the instructions given to the jurors before their deliberations.

Business interests had previously hoped that the high court would use the case in order to set limits on the firm’s award of punitive damages, intended to punish a defendant for its behavior and block a repeat offense.

Murray Garnick, Altria’s associate general counsel, expressed disappointment with the ruling, but said the decision does not undo earlier high court rulings reining in punitive damages awards. ”While we had hoped for a different outcome, the Supreme Court has decided not to review a narrow procedural ruling by the state court,” Garnick said.

Peck reported that the court has signaled a willingness to allow larger awards in particular circumstances. “I think we can take from this long tale that if the behavior is sufficiently reprehensible, then larger awards are merited,” said Peck.

 

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