Posted by: bridget | 20 February 2007

Phillip Morris Opinion Handed Down

The Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Philip Morris USA v Williams today. Five justices (Breyer, writing for the majority that included Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, and Souter) voted to turn down the jury award of $79.5 million dollars. Four justices (Ginsburg, Scalia, Thomas, and Stevens) dissented. So yes, we have the two most liberal justices, joined by the two most conservative justices, who dissented from an opinion written by the middle of the Court. We saw this in State Farm. Ooh, fun!

The majority held that the punitive award violated the Due Process Clause, as it punished the defendant for wrongdoing to parties who are not involved in the litigation. Philip Morris also requested that the Court follow the Gore decision by restricting punitive damages to ten times compensatory damages; the Court declined to decide the case on the latter ground, thereby reaching its decision on very broad Due Process grounds instead of the narrower Gore grounds (although the latter has absolutely no basis in the Constitution).

Essentially, the Court stated that, by allowing a jury to punish a defendant for wrongs committed to others, a defendant has been denied the due process of law. It may not present “every available defense” to having harmed the other persons; he may not argue, for example, that its conduct was not egregious, or that the other potential plaintiffs knew of the risks involved. Furthermore, when dealing with potential plaintiffs in neighbouring states, a large jury award has the effect of making a policy decision for the several States. The plaintiff argued that conduct towards others is a part of reprehensibility (one of the three Gore factors); the Court replied that a jury may still consider actions towards others as being part of “reprehensibility,” but may not inflate the damage award for harm done to others.

That reasoning leads itself to the very logical conclusion that appellate courts will have to guess the reasoning of a jury, and then uphold or overturn its verdict based on its mind-reading abilities.

Justice Stevens, in his dissent, partially agreed with the reprehensibility/federalism issue, but stated that it is an issue of compensatory, not punitive, damages. A Due Process violation would only be triggered if the jury were to inflate compensatory damages based on harm to others, but may properly consider it in the award of punitive damages. Justice Stevens also advocated for judicial restraint: he would like to refrain from further expanding substantive Due Process jurisprudence.

Justice Ginsburg dissented on narrower grounds. Philip Morris only preserved one jury instruction for appeal. It reads, in part:

“If you determine that some amount of punitive damages should be imposed on the defendant, it will then be your task to set an amount that is appropriate. This should be such amount as you believe isnecessary to achieve the objectives of deterrence and punishment…. (1) The size of any punishment should bear a reasonable relationship to the harm caused to Jesse Williams by the defendant’s punishable misconduct…. (2) The size of the punishment may appropriately reflect the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct—that is, how far the defendant has departed from accepted societal norms of conduct.”

Justice Ginsburg fails to see how this jury instruction would have resulted in a different jury award.

Justice Thomas briefly mentioned that the majority’s murmurings about procedure is nothing save a cover for substantive due process, run amok, without any basis in the Constitution.

There ya have it. Justice Stevens wants judicial restraint; Ginsburg, who dislikes the Gore/State Farm precedent, authored a dissent joined by Scalia and Thomas, saying that none of this is found in the Constitution anyway; and the majority said that having a jury award punitive damages for harm done to others violates procedural due process. Did someone creep into the Court late at night, perform brain surgery on all nine Justices, and then play mix-and-match when putting them back in?

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