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Supreme Court of Oregon Upholds $79.5 Million in Punitive Damages against Philip Morris

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In the ongoing war between those who have suffered the deadly ill-effects of smoking and the tobacco industry, there have been victories and defeats for each side. Big Tobacco has staunchly defended itself in a case-by-case approach refusing to settle individual claims much the same way Merck has chosen to fight the thousands of lawsuits involving Vioxx.

As a result of this strategy, the tobacco cases in litigation have slowly made their way through the discovery process, trial, and numerous appeals before reaching conclusion. Many times, appellate courts have overturned or greatly reduced damage awards. In some cases, verdicts in favor of plaintiffs have been set aside and the cases dismissed on appeal due to insufficient evidence on the issue of causation.

In many cases, however, plaintiffs have succeeded in prevailing before a jury and then defending that victory in the appellate courts. Such is the case with the family of Jesse D. Williams, a 67-year-old janitor who died of lung cancer in 1997.

On Thursday, The Columbian reported in an Associated Press release that: “The Oregon Supreme Court upheld…a $79.5 million punitive damages award to the family of an Oregon smoker who died of lung cancer, saying the amount isn’t excessive given the ‘reprehensible’ conduct of tobacco giant Philip Morris in marketing cigarettes.”

This decision “upholds a lower court ruling and responds to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that asked Oregon courts to consider whether the award in the lawsuit against Philip Morris, a unit of Altria Group Inc., was excessive. The state Supreme Court said it was not excessive, given ‘such extreme and outrageous circumstances.’”

The Williams case started its long journey through the appellate process in 1999 when a jury in Oregon county court returned a verdict for $500,000 in compensatory (non-economic) damages for conscious pain and suffering in addition to a $79.5 million award of punitive damages.

Although the lawsuit and ensuing appeals were state-based and not in federal court, a 2003 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Oregon courts “ to review the award to ensure it was not unconstitutionally excessive under new standards for punitive damages adopted by the high court.”

An intermediate Oregon appellate court reviewed the award in accordance with the Supreme Court directive and found it was not excessive. The state’s highest court has now affirmed that determination.

While the decision marks the end of the case insofar as the Oregon courts are concerned, it remains to be seen if Philip Morris will simply pay the massive award or make some additional procedural attempt to gain further review of the matter before the Supreme Court.

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