Thursday, March 16, 2006
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that, based on the state's 1998 settlement and dismissal of its suit against R.J. Reynolds and others, individuals in Georgia cannot obtain punitive damages. From The Business Journal story:
"The court determined that, under Georgia law, punitive damages are a matter of public interest, and when a state dismisses its claim for those damages in a consent decree, individuals are bound and may not recover them on their own," Martin L. Holton III, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for litigation at R.J. Reynolds. "We obviously are pleased by the decision."
The Supreme Court's summary (way at the bottom):
In Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. Gault et al., S05Q1465, the Supreme Court has ruled that “[t]he State’s release of its punitive damages claim as parens patriae precludes plaintiffs from pursuing the same claim for punitive damages in this action.”
Presiding Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote the majority opinion to which Justice Thompson dissented. Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan served in place of Justice Melton who did not participate.
The Court found that after “Clara Gault Freeman died of lung cancer in 2001,” the appellees “brought this product liability action against B&W in Fulton County seeking compensatory and punitive damages”; and that “B&W removed the case to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and moved for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim is barred by the doctrine of res judicata.” The United States District Court of the Northern District of Georgia subsequently certified this question to the Supreme Court: “Does the doctrine of res judicata bar individual Georgians from seeking punitive damages against [B&W] when the Attorney General of Georgia, suing on behalf of the State of Georgia, released [B&W] from all future punitive damages claims related to the manufacture or use of tobacco products by signing the Master Settlement Agreement?”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thompson argues that “the application of the doctrine of res judicata in this case violates our State's public policy” in that “our legislature did not intend to bar a punitive damage claim simply because punitive damages were sought and settled in a prior proceeding.”
The full opinion is here [PDF].