$80M Tobacco Verdict Extinguished

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The Supreme Court on Monday threw out an $80 million verdict against cigarette-maker Philip Morris.

The judgment, for the family of an Oregon janitor who died in 1997 of lung cancer, should be reviewed by lower courts to ensure it is not unconstitutionally excessive, justices said.

The court's action was encouraging for businesses, which hope a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year will lead to reductions in large punitive damage verdicts.

It was the second victory for Philip Morris in its legal battles with the family of Jesse D. Williams, of Portland, who accused the company of concealing information about the dangers of smoking. Williams started smoking in the 1950s when serving in the Army in Korea, and later he smoked three packs of Marlboros a day.

After a jury in 1999 ordered the company to pay the Williams family $79.5 million in punitive damages, the judge reduced the award to $32 million. A state appeals court reinstated the punitive damages award last year.

The Supreme Court ordered Oregon courts to review the judgment, in light of their ruling earlier this year that a jury went too far in ordering an insurance company to pay $145 million over the way it handled claims from a car accident.

Andrew Frey of Washington, an attorney for Philip Morris, had told the court that like the State Farm judgment, the verdict against Philip Morris was out-of-line.

Robert Peck of Washington, one of the Williams' lawyers, said that by setting aside the judgment, the Supreme Court would be "inviting every unhappy punitive damage defendant" to file appeals.

Jesse Williams' family said he kept smoking because he did not believe a company would sell something that was truly harmful.

In another ruling the Supreme Court refused to stop about 2,600 current and former black managers from suing food services company Sodexho Marriott Services Inc. in what the company described as the largest employment discrimination case of its kind.

Nearly $1 billion is at stake, the company maintains.

The justices had been asked to use the case to clarify when judges should block large class action lawsuits. They declined, without comment.

Lawyers for the suing workers disputed the $1 billion amount and said that they have not sought specific damages. They want the company to revise its promotion procedures.

The black workers claim the company broke federal civil rights laws, but the company said federal regulators have found no evidence of discrimination.

Company lawyer Todd J. Horn of Baltimore said if the lawsuit is allowed, any company can face a large class-action suit if a minority is underrepresented in upper-level management positions.

Also Monday, the Supreme Court:

  • Refused to consider whether the government overstepped its reach in prosecuting Ramzi Yousef, the man who masterminded the 1993 WTC bombing, for the bombing and for plotting to blow up a dozen U.S. jumbo jets over the Far East. Yousef lost a Supreme Court appeal.

  • Turned aside appeals from former American prisoners of war and others who claim they were forced to work for private Japanese companies as slave laborers during World War II.

  • Refused to consider overturning former President Clinton's orders protecting more than 2 million acres of federal land in five Western states.

  • Refused to stop about 2,600 current and former black managers from suing food services company Sodexho Marriott Services Inc. in what the company described as the largest employment discrimination case of its kind. The justices had been asked to use the case to clarify when judges should block large class action lawsuits.

  • Refused to take up the case of a woman convicted of murder after drugs were found in the system of her stillborn daughter. The case would have brought the high court into a legal and constitutional debate over fetal rights. A decision would likely have had implications for the fight over abortion.

  • Refused to intervene in the suit filed by a Nevada man who claims an inexperienced public defender did next to nothing to help him avoid conviction and a death sentence in 1982. Roberto Miranda was freed in 1996, after a judge found that the trial attorney had committed glaring errors.

  • Turned aside a church-state fight over a Bible club given permission by a lower court to meet in a public school during classtime. Attorneys for a school superintendent in the state of Washington argued that a federal appeals court was far out of bounds when it ruled in favor of the Bible club last year. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the club, called World Changers, should be treated the same as other school clubs and allowed to use school space and supplies.

  • Refused to consider reinstating a lawsuit by a legal watchdog group against the Internal Revenue Service. Judicial Watch Inc. claims the IRS singled it out for an audit in retaliation for its political speech, including lawsuits against then-President Clinton. The group had urged the justices to give people who contend they've become IRS targets opportunities to sue. The Bush administration said that IRS employees were protected from lawsuits.

  • Gave a victory to unhappy California long distance customers. Justices said they would not hear an AT&T Corp. appeal of a court ruling that the long-distance provider violated a California consumer protection law by requiring customers to arbitrate disputes instead of suing. Other long distance companies, including MCI and Sprint, argued that without arbitration, long distance calling costs would rise for everyone.

  • Turned aside appeals from former American prisoners of war and others who claim they were forced to work for private Japanese companies as slave laborers during World War II. The court's action, taken without comment, ends lawsuits in California against Japanese firms or their successors that allegedly forced prisoners to work in mines, dig roads and perform other duties more than 50 years ago.
    • Jaime Holguin

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