- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Juries can punish a cigarette company and award money to an aggrieved widow only for the harm done to her husband, not to other smokers, a lawyer for Philip Morris USA told the Supreme Court yesterday.

In seeking to turn back a $79.5 million award of punitive damages in Oregon, Philip Morris argued that the jury should have been told explicitly that other smokers would have to prove their own cases.

“Confine the jury to its proper domain and its domain is the case before it,” said Andrew Frey, the company’s lawyer.

The case involved Jessie Williams, a two-pack-a-day smoker of Marlboros who died of lung cancer.

Mr. Williams’ widow, Mayola, followed through on a promise to her husband and sued Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboros. The company is part of Altria Group Inc.

Oregon courts have upheld the verdict, even after the Supreme Court sent the case back earlier to make sure it conformed to a 2003 high court opinion limiting punitive damages.

Several justices said the best course may be to ask the state Supreme Court once again to explain its ruling. “Isn’t perhaps the better course to send this back and say we don’t know what you mean?” Justice David H. Souter said at one point.

Robert Peck, Mrs. Williams’ attorney, said the jury award was appropriate because it is punishing Philip Morris’ misconduct for a decades-long “massive market-directed fraud” that misled people into thinking cigarettes were not dangerous.

Mr. Williams, according to his widow, never gave any credence to the surgeon general’s health warnings about smoking cigarettes because tobacco companies insisted they were safe. Only after becoming ill did Mr. Williams tell his wife: “Those darn cigarette people finally did it. They were lying all the time.”

To the dismay of anti-smoking groups, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the company’s appeal.

The Williams family is counting on justices to find that Philip Morris’ conduct was so reprehensible that it justifies exceeding guidelines the court has laid out in two rulings in the past 10 years that struck down large awards.

The court also will be looking at the decision of the state courts that declared it acceptable for the jury in the Williams case to consider harm by Philip Morris to other smokers for conduct similar to that which purportedly injured Mr. Williams.

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a different case that a defendant cannot be punished in an individual lawsuit for harm to people other than the plaintiff.

Another case being argued yesterday highlights what critics say are problems with court-appointed attorneys for death row inmates in Florida.

Gary Lawrence, convicted of fatally beating with a pipe and baseball bat his wife’s lover and then setting the body on fire, is asking the Supreme Court to allow the appeal of his sentence to proceed despite a lower-court ruling that he missed a deadline. Among Lawrence’s arguments is that his lawyer, supervised by Florida courts, was responsible for timely legal filings.

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