- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

The Supreme Court yesterday opened the 2003-04 term by rejecting excessive punitive awards in cases involving tobacco and traffic deaths, and upholding a 12-year prison term for a cocaine user whose baby was stillborn.

The high court vacated a $79.5 million punitive judgment against tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris USA and a $3 million award against automaker DaimlerChrysler Corp. because each exceeded a constitutional compensation limit.

In its April 7 State Farm decision, the court ruled that punitive awards exceeding nine times the cost of damages violated the Constitution’s due process clause.

Tort-reform lobbyists argue that corporations are penalized by local courts for actions that may be legal elsewhere or for conduct bearing little relation to the contested case.

William S. Ohlemeyer, counsel and vice president for Philip Morris, said the company will try to build on its victory in overturning a 99-to-1 judgment by asking for “a new trial, of all issues, not just punitive damages.”

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., the Washington lawyer representing DaimlerChrysler Corp., said that overturning a 13-to-1 punitive award against the carmaker means that even the 9-to-1 ratio may be too high. He said the court “strongly suggested” in April that punitive damages should he held to less than double in cases with large compensatory awards.

“In some ways, our victory in Chrysler is more significant because it does indicate that even awards that are close to the single-digit ratios can and do violate due process,” Mr. Boutrous said. “We argued that even 9-to-1 would be excessive … in cases with large compensatory judgments, depending on the other factors involved in each case,” Mr. Boutrous said.

The tobacco decision overturned an Oregon jury’s $79.5 million punitive award on top of $800,000 compensation to the family of Jesse Williams, a longtime smoker of Marlboro cigarettes. Mr. Williams died in 1997 of lung cancer.

The DaimlerChrysler Corp. appeal challenged a $3 million punitive award, on top of $235,629 in compensatory damages, for the death of Charles Clark in a 1993 collision.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said a faulty door latch caused Mr. Clark’s ejection from a 1992 Dodge Ram pickup. The company said Mr. Clark wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was hit in an intersection in Gray, Ky., by a police car that sounded emergency warnings.

Both awards overturned yesterday were granted long before the Supreme Court set its “single-digit” standard.

Without comment, the high court upheld the South Carolina homicide conviction and 12-year prison sentence of Regina McKnight, whose use of crack cocaine was blamed for her daughter’s stillbirth.

The court let stand what lawyers called the nation’s first conviction and sentence of a woman for conduct that harmed her fetus.

The 5-pound girl was born in 1999 after a pregnancy estimated to have lasted from 34 to 37 weeks. The mother’s urine tested positive for cocaine, and an autopsy showed the drug had reached the fetus.

McKnight’s attorneys said there was no proof that cocaine use caused the baby’s death and argued that the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The homicide case drew attention from women’s groups, public health organizations and civil rights advocates. About two dozen organizations predicted that failure to overturn the state ruling would leave women open to punishment for smoking, taking medications, working or otherwise exposing themselves to stress while pregnant.

Prosecutors charged McKnight under a provision that punished actions causing a child younger than 11 to die because of “an extreme indifference to human life” and said she knew that crack use could kill her fetus.

As the term opened, hundreds of protesters clamored outside the Supreme Court carrying signs expressing objection to the court’s 6-3 ruling in June striking down a Texas law against homosexual sodomy, lower-court decisions removing the Ten Commandments from public places, and a string of decisions over abortion rights.

A man dressed in a tunic to mimic Moses held tablets meant to depict the Ten Commandments. Across the street, groups of women carried signs saying, “Congress: Impeach the Sodomy Six,” and “Shame on This Court.” Another banner said: “[Christians] hold the Supreme Court of the United States in Contempt.”

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