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Feb 2007
February 20, 2007

Supreme Court Imposes Further Limit on Punitive Damage Awards

In a 5-4 decision issued February 20, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a $79.5 million punitive damages award against Philip Morris that had been granted to a smoker's widow. The majority held that Philip Morris could not be punished for harm to smokers who were not parties to the suit.

The plaintiff, Mayola Williams, had argued the punitive damages award was appropriate because Philip Morris had engaged in a massive fraud on the market that misled the public into believing cigarettes were not addictive or dangerous. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer disagreed that this was an appropriate basis for a punitive damages award: a State 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."

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Souter joined the majority opinion, which did not address whether the award's size was constitutionally excessive, as Philip Morris had also asked. Justices Ginsburg, Scalia, Stevens, and Thomas dissented.

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