On Tuesday, February 20th, the Supreme Court overturned a 79.5 million dollar punitive damage award against Philip Morris. The plaintiff in that case, Jesse Williams, died after years of smoking Marlboro cigarettes. His widow brought the claim arguing that the tobacco company had conducted years of fraud in purposefully marketing cigarettes as not being harmful.
The original trial court jury awarded $800,000 in compensatory damages, which was later reduced to $500,000, and 79.5 million in punitive damages. The whole purpose for punitive damages is to punish defendants for conduct that is extreme and outrageous. To date, no court has set a limitation or standard on these awards and the supreme court did not do so here either. What they did do is say that in this case, that amount of punitive damages, which was 97 times the amount of compensatory damages was excessive. The supreme court agreed and the case was returned to the state level for a new trial on that issue or a reduction of the award.