U.S. Supreme Court Declines To Hear Tobacco Case
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case in which Philip Morris USA sought to reduce a $50 million punitive damage award to the family of a California smoker who died of cancer, the AP/Washington Post reports (AP/Washington Post, 3/21). The justices unanimously declined to hear the case without comment, a move that "clears the way for the largest court-ordered payment in an individual smoking lawsuit," the Washington Times reports.
In the case, a California jury in 2001 found Philip Morris guilty of fraud, negligence, misrepresentation and sale of a defective product and awarded Richard Boeken, who died in 2002, $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $3 billion in punitive damages. The judge in the case reduced the punitive damage award to $100 million, and a California appeals court later reduced the award to $50 million (Taylor, Washington Times, 3/21).
Boeken "is one of a handful of Californians who have won damages under a 1998 law that allowed individuals to sue tobacco companies for making misleading or fraudulent claims in marketing a dangerous product," according to the San Francisco Chronicle (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 3/21).
Philip Morris had asked the court to declare the punitive damage award "unconstitutionally excessive" and clarify the rules for punitive damages in future tobacco lawsuits.
Douglas Blanke, director of the Tobacco Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law, said the decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case indicates "that the tide has turned in the 50 years of tobacco litigation in this country and that increasingly jurors are not buying the defenses that have served the tobacco interests for years."
Steven Rissman, an associate general counsel and spokesperson for Altria Corporate Services, said that the "denial of review by the Supreme Court has no import, no significance in terms of a ruling on the merits." He added, "In terms of overall perspective, this judgment is part of a small group of cases that were lost in the California trial courts between 1999 and 2001. Since then, Philip Morris USA has won five consecutive cases in the California trial courts, so in many ways, this is kind of the old cases cycling through the appellate process" (Washington Times, 3/21).
Attorney Michael Piuze -- who represents Judy Boeken, the widow of Richard Boeken -- said that the amount of the punitive damage award was not adequate, adding, "Nor do I believe that it will adequately deter future wrongdoing by other giant corporations" (San Francisco Chronicle, 3/21).