After hearing arguments in a long-running Oregon case involving the death of a cigarette smoker, the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially said "never mind," dismissing the case and leaving unresolved an important question: When can state courts ignore instructions from the nation's highest court to re-examine their rulings?
The justices should take another case that would enable them to resolve that question. While they're at it, they should find one that raises the other issue in the Oregon example: How far can juries go in awarding punitive damages? The latter question may seem technical, but confusion in this area of the law has wasted the time of lawyers, judges and injured parties, and sometimes has led to injustices.
The Oregon case involved a lawsuit against Philip Morris USA by the widow of Jesse Williams, who died of lung cancer in 1997. In addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate her for her loss, the jury awarded Mayola Williams $79.5 million in punitive damages. Thus began a decade-long series of appeals in which the case came before the Supreme Court three times.
In the 2007 installment of this saga, the court ruled that in awarding punitive damages, jurors may not take account of injuries to people who aren't party to the lawsuit, a point made in jury instructions suggested by Philip Morris but not read by the trial judge. (Williams' lawyer had told the jury to think about "how many other Jesse Williams" there were in Oregon.) The justices sent the case back to the Oregon high court with instructions to "apply the standard we set forth." Only then, said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, might the Supreme Court consider whether the punitive damages award was "grossly excessive."
Notwithstanding Breyer's advice, the Oregon court sustained the $79.5-million award on different grounds - that the trial judge was right to reject Philip Morris' proposed jury instructions for other reasons. On Dec. 3, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the Oregon court had disregarded the justices' directions. But on March 31, without explanation, the court aborted the case, saying it had "improvidently" decided to hear it.
That's good news for Mayola Williams, whose award has increased with interest to $155 million. But the court's rejection of the case is bad news not just for Philip Morris but for other defendants ordered to pay inflated punitive damages.
In 1997, in a case involving a doctor who was awarded $4 million in punitive damages because BMW had repainted his supposedly new car, the Supreme Court said that there must be a "reasonable relationship" between the amount of punitive damages and the actual harm to a plaintiff. But the court has stopped short of establishing a clear ratio, encouraging juries and lower courts to push the envelope in a way that guarantees further litigation.
Now that the court has withdrawn from the Philip Morris case, it should look for an opportunity to clarify what it means by "grossly excessive."