There's been a lot of discussion and commentary on the US Supreme Court's knee jerk dismissal of the Oregon case involving tobacco giant Philip Morris and the huge punitive damage award granted to plaintiff Mayola Williams, which had already been approved by Oregon's high court.
In case you haven't heard, Mayola Williams filed and won a wrongful death suit based upon the untimely demise of her cigarette-smoking husband, Jesse Williams, due to lung cancer. Actual damages totalled around $800,000 and the punitives were assessed at $79.5 million -- at the juncture, what with interest, the widow Williams is looking at receiving over $175,000,000.00.
Of course, the defense bar had its fingers crossed that the US Supreme Court would take this opportunity to cap punitive damages. What they got, on April 1st, was a one sentence opinion from the highest court in the land, that it had "improvidently granted" writ in the case and had now changed its mind. Wo Nellie.
Which leaves the Oregon Supreme Court's decision intact, the Widow Williams ready to receive her final award, and the plaintiff's bar a very happy group of folk today.
Because despite all the defense talk that this case is limited to its four corners, it isn't. And, that argument that what happens in Oregon stays in Oregon won't fly either.
We all already know that other big damage cases in other states are going to use this case as a strong argument that the US Supreme Court has sent the message: in the right case, big punitives are totally acceptable.
And, you know what: I think they're right to do this. Punitive damages serve a purpose, and I think we can all agree in today's climate that money is the only language that some corporations understand.