Supreme Court Overturns Philip Morris Damage Award

The Supreme Court has given Big Tobacco a big victory today.

The Supreme Court threw out a $79.5 million punitive damages award to a smoker’s widow Tuesday, a boon to businesses seeking stricter limits on big-dollar jury verdicts. The 5-4 ruling was a victory for Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA, which contested an Oregon Supreme Court decision upholding the verdict.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said the verdict could not stand because the jury in the case was not instructed that it could punish Philip Morris only for the harm done to the plaintiff, not to other smokers whose cases were not before it. States must “provide assurances that juries are not asking the wrong question … seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers,” Breyer said.

An interesting result and one that seems reasonable enough on its face. Here’s what’s more interesting:

Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.

So, the Court’s two most liberal justices were joined by its two most conservative justices in the minority? In a case where the majority sided with the interests of Big Business over a poor little old widow?

The opinions are available in PDF format. Stevens, Thomas, and Ginsburg all filed separate dissents, with Thomas and Scalia also joining Ginsburg’s dissent. Indeed, Thomas says he joins Ginsburg’s dissent “in full” but “I write separately to reiterate my view that ‘the Constitution does not constrain the size of punitive damages awards.'”

The Ginsburg-Scalia-Thomas dissent begins:

The purpose of punitive damages, it can hardly be denied, is not to compensate, but to punish. Punish for what? Not for harm actually caused “strangers to the litigation,” ante, at 5, the Court states, but for the reprehensibility of defendant’s conduct, ante, at 7—8. “[C]onduct that risks harm to many,” the Court observes, “is likely more reprehensible than conduct that risks harm to only a few.” Ante, at 9. The Court thus conveys that, when punitive damages are at issue, a jury is properly instructed to consider the extent of harm suffered by others as a measure of reprehensibility, but not to mete out punishment for injuries in fact sustained by nonparties.

That’s a sound enough analysis and may well make sense from a constitutional standpoint as well. From a public policy standpoint, though, it’s incredibly problematic. Under the Ginsburg-Scalia-Thomas logic, the tobacco companies could be repeatedly made to pay for the same damages with each individual suit. That’s simply unreasonable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Ginsburg-Scalia-Thomas also dissented in BMW v. Gore, where the supreme court struck down a punitive damage award as excessive.

  2. carpeicthus says:

    THAT is an interesting caucus.

  3. denise says:

    Under the Ginsburg-Scalia-Thomas logic, the tobacco companies could be repeatedly made to pay for the same damages with each individual suit. That’s simply unreasonable.

    Without having read the opinions, I don’t think that would be the result of the minority view. One of the factors the jury is instructed to consider in determining the amount of punitive damage awards is the amounts of previous punitive damage awards (if there have been any) for the same conduct.

    Of course, this means theoretically, the first plaintiff to trial gets a big, fat slice of the punitive pie. Subsequent plaintiffs should (assuming equal juries, equal lawyers, . . .) get smaller and smaller punitive damage awards, even if they’ve suffered greater harm. The law does not consider this a problem, though, because, as indicated in the opinion blurb, punitive damages aren’t meant to compensate plaintiffs. The subsequent plaintiffs get everything they’re entitled to and don’t have any right to complain that someone else got even more than their fair share.

  4. Beldar says:

    Denise already wrote the exact comment I was going to leave. 🙂

  5. Anderson says:

    The majority op is a sad little thing. It’s okay for the jury to deliberate on harm to others for “reprehensibility” but not for “punishment.”

    Yes, I’m *sure* a properly crafted jury instruction will solve *that* problem. No wonder Breyer decided to leave it up to the states … which I suspect to be a euphemism for “we have no f—ing clue how to implement the rule we have invented.”

    More actual lawyers on the Court, please.