American Judges Association


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Published in Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, 44:4. Copyright © 2007-2008 National Center for State Courts. Used by permission.


For a single tort case in which liability is no longer contested, Philip Morris USA v. Williams proved remarkably difficult to bring to closure. Like many plaintiffs since the 1990s, Mayola Williams persuaded a jury that Philip Morris fraudulently concealed the addictive and carcinogenic aspects of its product from the public and thereby killed her husband. The jury awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages. That is a nearly 100:1 ratio, far greater than the single-digit ratio designated by the Court as a presumptive limit only four years earlier in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Campbell. It is therefore unsurprising that, in 2007—eight years after the case went to trial—the United States Supreme Court bridled at the award in Williams and remanded it to the Oregon Supreme Court to examine whether there had been a procedural dueprocess violation in the trial judge’s handling of the case, especially its jury instructions. It is equally unsurprising that the Oregon Supreme Court, aiming to preserve the autonomy of its tort law and hostile to a perceived pro-business orientation on the Roberts Court, wished to keep the $79.5 million dollar verdict intact and promptly reaffirmed the verdict. The surprise is that after three visits to the Court, plenty of hand-wringing, and a volatile oral argument in December of 2008, the United States Supreme Court simply backed down and permitted a visibly defiant Oregon Supreme Court to have its way. On March 31, the Supreme Court issued a one-line per curiam order dismissing the certiorari petition in Williams as improvidently granted.

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