Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Punitive Damages & Due Process: Trying to Keep Up with the United States Supreme Court after Philip Morris USA V. Williams

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Punitive Damages & Due Process: Trying to Keep Up with the United States Supreme Court after Philip Morris USA V. Williams

Article excerpt


Throughout the past two decades, the United States Supreme Court has gradually formed several procedural and substantive protections under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause (1) limiting the size of punitive damages a State can award against civil defendants. (2) The Court has made it clear that the catalyst for the recent constitutional doctrine stems from its concern towards punitive damages that "run wild." (3) What has not been as clear is what prior constitutional authority the Court has drawn from when creating these new rules. (4) Consequently, state courts, left with little guidance, have struggled with applying as well as predicting the evolving requirements of due process announced by the Court.

The latest example of a state court's valiant effort to comply with these constitutional standards and ultimately have its decision vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court occurred in Philip Morris USA v. Williams. (5) In a schizophrenic opinion, the Court in Williams announced a new rule that unequivocally prohibits a state from using punitive damages to punish a defendant for harm caused to persons not parties to the litigation, while simultaneously concluding that evidence of harm to nonparties is admissible to show the reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct. (6) Without elaborating on the utility of this distinction, the Court then charged trial courts with the ambiguous task of ensuring that juries do not improperly use evidence of this type. (7)

The decision announced in Williams immediately sparked negative scholarly reaction. (8) Academics have criticized the Court's holding as an unworkable rule (9) that has further interfered with the States' prerogative in awarding punitive damages. (10) The purpose of this Note is to explain the significance Williams will have on a state's ability to impose punitive damages as well as to describe the practical challenges trial courts will face in adhering to the Court's new rule. To properly frame the issues for discussion, this Note will first recount the Court's brief and tumultuous history construing due process limitations with punitive damages. Then it will describe what effects Williams will have on lower court procedures and the States' legitimate interest in awarding punitive damages.


Mayola Williams ("Williams"), the widow and personal representative of the estate of Jesse Williams, filed suit against Philip Morris in Oregon circuit court to recover compensatory and punitive damages for the death of her husband. (11) The decedent, Jesse Williams, who had smoked cigarettes produced and marketed by Philip Morris since the early 1950s, was diagnosed with smoking-related lung cancer resulting in his death in 1997. (12) The jury found for Williams on her claims of negligence and fraud and awarded economic damages of 21,485.80 dollars and noneconomic damages of 800,000 dollars on each claim and awarded 79.5 million dollars in punitive damages on the fraud claim--a ninety-seven to one ratio. (13) A statutory cap on noneconomic damages awarded in wrongful death claims reduced those damages to 500,000 dollars, (14) and the trial court reduced the punitive damages to 32 million dollars on the ground that the award was excessive under the United States Constitution. (15)

Williams appealed the reduction of the punitive damages award and Philip Morris cross-appealed assigning error, inter alia, to the trial court's denial of its motion for directed verdict on the plaintiff's fraud claim. (16) With respect to Philip Morris' point on appeal, the appellate court held that fraud may be established by a showing that the defendant conveyed a material misrepresentation to a class of people of which the plaintiff was a member and intended the class to receive and on which it was to rely. (17) The court reviewed the egregious conduct of Philip Morris, which involved a forty-year publicity campaign to convince the public that there was a legitimate controversy over the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. …

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