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Philip Morris USA v. Williams
Hearing date: October 31
At issue: Power of juries to impose large punitive damages against tobacco and other well-heeled corporations in product-liability cases.
The case and arguments: An Oregon jury ruled in favor of the estate of building custodian Jesse Williams, who died of lung cancer after smoking up to three packs a day for 47 years. His family sued Philip Morris, manufacturer of the popular Marlboro brand. A jury awarded $800,000 in compensatory damages and almost 100 times that -- $79.5 million -- in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $32 million, but higher state courts restored the award to the original amount. The justices will decide whether to follow recent precedent that punitive damages should in most cases match "actual" damages.
The impact: Philip Morris and other tobacco makers have been the subject of lengthy and high-profile class-action lawsuits. Consumer rights advocates argue large punitive damages are necessary as a deterrent and as retribution when corporate conduct is judged excessive or extreme.