November 2, 2006
Torts gone wild: Justices risk sending the wrong message in a 'hard case' concerning punitive-damage awards
Editorial from today's Los Angeles Times -- Torts gone wild: Justices risk sending the wrong message in a 'hard case' concerning punitive-damage awards. Perhaps it's indicative of a shift in popular opinion that the L.A. Times would urge the overturning of a huge punitive damages verdict against a tobacco company and also tangentially note that the plaintiff in the case "had disregarded warnings from his family about the risks of smoking." Here's an excerpt:
After Oregon's highest court affirmed the jury verdict against Philip Morris, the U.S. Supreme Court asked lawyers for the company and Mrs. Williams to address two questions. One was whether Philip Morris' "reprehensible" conduct overrode the requirement that punitive damages bear a reasonable relation to actual damages. The other was whether the Constitution allows a jury in a case brought by one individual to punish the defendant for the effects of its conduct on others.
Both questions seem like no-brainers in light of past decisions about the need for punitive damages to bear a reasonable relationship to proven harm. Yet during oral arguments Tuesday, several justices seemed to suggest that ambiguities in the record — such as whether the Oregon Supreme Court had concluded that punitive damages could be based on harm to non-parties — might require returning the case to lower courts.
Punting the case would be a terrible idea. As this lawsuit demonstrates, many lower courts are uncomfortable with the Supreme Court's efforts to curb outlandish punitive-damage awards. An inconclusive ruling would embolden those courts in their resistance. It also would encourage speculation that recent changes in the high court's membership have undermined its punitive-damage precedents. Two of the six justices in the majority in the 2003 ruling, the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor, are no longer on the court.
Huge awards in individual lawsuits — as opposed to sensible legislation — are not the best way to curb smoking, obesity, gun violence and other threats to public health. The Supreme Court should see through the smoke screen of this "hard" case and say that.
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