Phillip Morris USA v. Williams. Shifting The Burden To The Public Rather Than The Wrongdoer

February 24, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
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Phillip Morris USA v. Williams.

Shifting The Cost To The Public Rather Than The Wrongdoer
Phillip Morris Is Laughing All The Way To The Bank With The Profits From Their Deceit.

On February 20 2007 the United States Supreme court rendered its decision in Phillip Morris v. Williams, The majority opinion was written by Justice Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Alito, Souter and Kennedy. Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, Scalia and Thomas dissented.

The court considered a jury verdict by an Oregon court granting Mayall Williams, the widow of Jesse Williams. $821,000.00 in compensatory damages and $ 79.9 million in punitive damages. Jesse Williams smoked Marlboros for 45 years and died of lung cancer. The case turned on deceit and negligence. The trial court originally reduced the award of punitive damages but the Oregon Supreme Court reinstated the award which was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the jury was inadequately instructed that they could only award punitive damages for the harm done Jesse Williams and not for any other person not a party to this lawsuit.

The Court did not address the issue if the amount of punitive damages was a violation of due process on substantive grounds. It restricted its ruling to whether or not the Oregon trial court made it sufficiently clear in its instructions to the jury that an award of punitive damages could only be based on the damage the reprehensible conduct caused the individual before the court and not on the harm done to strangers not before the court. Thus its ruling is on the basis of procedural due process.

Justices Stevens and Ginsberg found the Oregon jury instructions unambiguous and compliant with the law. They found no grounds to over turn the Oregon Supreme Court ruling. Judge Stevens pointed out that Justices Breyer’s opinion while limiting punitive damages to the party in the suit also stated that the jury can look to the reprehensibility of the defendants conduct giving rise to punitive damages as it affected others who were strangers to the law suit. This would establish the degree of reprehensibility by looking at such things as knowledge of harm to others etc. Justice Stevens further stated there is no restriction on the State allowing punitive damages for reprehensible conduct to strangers to the law suit and therefore the Oregon Court was correct in its charge to the jury.

Justices Scalia and Thomas do not believe the Constitution grants either substantive due process rights or procedural due process rights as to the amount of punitive damages and therefore the issue was moot for them.

Phillip Morris has caused thousands if not millions of injuries usually leading to death by its deceitful marketing practices. Many of those injured will never have the luxury of a jury trial because they are too old, sick, dead or for other practical reasons unable to bring or participate in a law suit. Indeed if all those damaged brought suit there would be not enough courts to hear the cases. Yet Phillip Morris continues to market its cigarettes and reap the profits from persons they deceitfully addicted years ago. Many of today’s smokers were enticed to try smoking by advertising campaigns directed at the young. Phillip Morris knew that cigarettes were dangerous to ones health and it also knew that if they enticed young people to try smoking many would become addicted and never be able to give it up. It seems that this decision provides Phillip Morris with a windfall for the reprehensible conduct from which it profited so greatly and continues to profit for the sales to those it addicted to cigarettes by its deceit.

A Punitive damage award serves many purposes in the law. Its use looks both forward and backward. It sees the reprehensibility of the conduct toward the litigant, looks to how wide spread the conduct was in our society as an element of the reprehensibility and the amount of the punitive damages is designed to deter similar conduct in the future.

In this case the court did not rule on the adequacy of the damages awarded Mr. Williams widow but sent the case back to the Oregon Supreme Court for reduction of the award or to grant a new trial only on the grounds that the trial court had not clearly instructed the jury on the limitations on the scope of the punitive damages award. A new concept not heretofore required and which four Justices found to be not based on a constitutional requirement

The General Welfare Of The Public Is Not Served By This Decision.
Phillip Morris Is Laughing All The Way To The Bank With The Profits From Their Deceit.

Phillip Morris has a scorched earth policy in defending these law suits probably because the damage done by their deceitful conduct is so pervasive in our society that it would be economically impossible to compensate every one who suffered actual damage much less pay a punitive damage award for the offending conduct. Instead they prefer to hire a net work of lawyers skilled in defending such suits and then to appeal an adverse award. The present lawsuit is approximately ten years old an the end is not in sight because depending on what the Oregon Supreme Court does the award can be appealed again and probably will be. Thus an injured person is deterred from suing in the first place because he or she will not be alive to benefit by any award except perhaps that his estate will be able to pay his last medical expenses if they have not already been paid by the taxpayers.

Roberts and Alito voted with the majority in this case which did not split along liberal conservative lines. The Justices they replaced, Rehnquist and O’Conner, probably would have voted with the majority also. Rehnquist was not a protector of individual rights and O’Conner was considered middle of the road on some social issues but was basically an economic conservative no matter what the damage to the individual or consumer.

The court in avoiding a direct ruling on the issue of the adequacy of punitive damages and stating what substantive due process is in the amount of punitive damages has found a new path to limit punitive damages after a jury has spoken on the issue. In doing so it is infringing on the Williams’ right to trial by jury guaranteed by the 7th amendment. The framers never said the Supreme Court has the right to second guess what a jury decided and in this case as Justice Stevens points out the jury instructions were compliant with existing law.

Also using a ratio as guide between compensable damages and punitive damages as stated in State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U. S. 408 makes no sense because punitive damages has a deterrent aspect as well as a punitive aspect and how do you deter a mega corporation such as Phillip Morris USA other than with a substantial punitive award. This case lowers the possibility of a deterrent award and only encourages the reprehensible conduct in the future.

The Penalty For Fraud And Deceit Will Be So Low And The Rewards Reaped Thereby Will Be So High That Wrongdoers Will Not Be Deterred But Encouraged.

There will be much rejoicing in the executive suites at Phillip Morris and other large organizations that deceive the public as to the safety or worthiness of their goods and services. This case gives these wrong doers little or no incentive to alter their conduct or right the wrongs they have done to their customers and the public not before the court.

The penalty for fraud and deceit will be so low and the rewards reaped thereby will be so high that wrongdoers will not be deterred but encouraged. Phillip Morris is laughing all the way to the bank with the profits from their deceit.