Philip Morris USA v. Williams

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Opinion [Justice Breyer]
Dissent [Justice Stevens]
Dissent [Justice Thomas]
Dissent [Justice Ginsburg]




certiorari to the supreme court of oregon

No. 05–1256. Argued October 31, 2006—Decided February 20, 2007

In this state negligence and deceit lawsuit, a jury found that Jesse Williams’ death was caused by smoking and that petitioner Philip Morris, which manufactured the cigarettes he favored, knowingly and falsely led him to believe that smoking was safe. In respect to deceit, it awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages to respondent, the personal representative of Williams’ estate. The trial court reduced the latter award, but it was restored by the Oregon Court of Appeals. The State Supreme Court rejected Philip Morris’ arguments that the trial court should have instructed the jury that it could not punish Philip Morris for injury to persons not before the court, and that the roughly 100-to-1 ratio the $79.5 million award bore to the compensatory damages amount indicated a “grossly excessive” punitive award.


1. A punitive damages award based in part on a jury’s desire to punish a defendant for harming nonparties amounts to a taking of property from the defendant without due process. Pp. 4–10..

(a) While “[p]unitive damages may properly be imposed to further a State’s legitimate interests in punishing unlawful conduct and deterring its repetition,” BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U. S. 559, 568, unless a State insists upon proper standards to cabin the jury’s discretionary authority, its punitive damages system may deprive a defendant of “fair notice … of the severity of the penalty that a State may impose,” id., at 574; may threaten “arbitrary punishments,” State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U. S. 408, 416; and, where the amounts are sufficiently large, may impose one State’s (or one jury’s) “policy choice” upon “neighboring States” with different public policies, BMW, supra, at 571–572. Thus, the Constitution imposes limits on both the procedures for awarding punitive damages and amounts forbidden as “grossly excessive.” See Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg, 512 U. S. 415, 432. The Constitution’s procedural limitations are considered here. Pp. 4–5..

(b) The Due Process Clause forbids a State to use a punitive damages award to punish a defendant for injury inflicted on strangers to the litigation. For one thing, a defendant threatened with punishment for such injury has no opportunity to defend against the charge. See Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U. S. 56, 66. For another, permitting such punishment would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damages equation and magnify the fundamental due process concerns of this Court’s pertinent cases—arbitrariness, uncertainty, and lack of notice. Finally, the Court finds no authority to support using punitive damages awards to punish a defendant for harming others. BMW, supra, at 568, n.11, distinguished. Respondent argues that showing harm to others is relevant to a different part of the punitive damages constitutional equation, namely, reprehensibility. While evidence of actual harm to nonparties can help to show that the conduct that harmed the plaintiff also posed a substantial risk to the general public, and so was particularly reprehensible, a jury may not go further and use a punitive damages verdict to punish a defendant directly for harms to those nonparties. Given the risks of unfairness, it is constitutionally important for a court to provide assurance that a jury is asking the right question; and given the risks of arbitrariness, inadequate notice, and imposing one State’s policies on other States, it is particularly important that States avoid procedure that unnecessarily deprives juries of proper legal guidance. Pp. 5–8..

(c) The Oregon Supreme Court’s opinion focused on more than reprehensibility. In rejecting Philip Morris’ claim that the Constitution prohibits using punitive damages to punish a defendant for harm to nonparties, it made three statements. The first—that this Court held in State Farm only that a jury could not base an award on dissimilar acts of a defendant—was correct, but this Court now explicitly holds that a jury may not punish for harm to others. This Court disagrees with the second statement—that if a jury cannot punish for the conduct, there is no reason to consider it—since the Due Process Clause prohibits a State’s inflicting punishment for harm to nonparties, but permits a jury to consider such harm in determining reprehensibility. The third statement—that it is unclear how a jury could consider harm to nonparties and then withhold that consideration from the punishment calculus—raises the practical problem of how to know whether a jury punished the defendant for causing injury to others rather than just took such injury into account under the rubric of reprehensibility. The answer is that state courts cannot authorize procedures that create an unreasonable and unnecessary risk of any such confusion occurring. Although States have some flexibility in determining what kind of procedures to implement to protect against that risk, federal constitutional law obligates them to provide some form of protection where the risk of misunderstanding is a significant one. Pp. 8–10.

2. Because the Oregon Supreme Court’s application of the correct standard may lead to a new trial, or a change in the level of the punitive damages award, this Court will not consider the question whether the award is constitutionally “grossly excessive.” P. 10.

340 Ore. 35, 127 P. 3d 1165, vacated and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Kennedy, Souter, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., and Thomas, J., filed dissenting opinions. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined.


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