Results matching “philip morris williams”

In Rhode Island, campaigning on failure - PointOfLaw Forum

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a Democrat running for governor, is actually campaigning on having lost a lawsuit. From AP's report on a candidate forum, "6 Rhode Island candidates for governor discuss childhood poverty at interfaith forum":

When the candidates were asked about protecting children, Democrat Patrick Lynch touted his record as two-term attorney general, including suing former lead paint companies for making a toxic product.

The state won a jury verdict in 2006 that could have cost three companies billions of dollars, but the decision was overturned two years later by the state Supreme Court.

"It's still used for political potshots, but I was the only one who stood up," Lynch said.

Stood up and continued the legally suspect public nuisance lawsuit started by Lynch's predecessor, AG Sheldon Whitehouse, before finally losing! (Supreme Court opinion here.)

State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., et al. case is in the news again this week because the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will hold a hearing on the nomination of John J. "Jack" McConnell, Jr., to be U.S. District Judge for the District of Rhode Island. McConnell is the Motley Rice attorney who, on a contingency basis, "led the trial team representing the State of Rhode Island in the public nuisance litigation against the major former manufacturers of lead paint."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform just issued a statement opposing McConnell's nomination. Lisa Rickard, ILR President, said:

In addition to earning a lackluster rating from the American Bar Association, Mr. McConnell has defined his plaintiffs' lawyer career by suing employers based on controversial legal theories. For example, he has spent a large part of the past decade advancing a misguided interpretation of the public nuisance theory in lead paint litigation, which was rejected by four state supreme courts, including the unanimous rejection by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has blinked in its epic poker game with the Oregon Supreme Court over the latter's punitive damages award against Philip Morris. The Supremes on Tuesday, four months after oral argument, dismissed the tobacco giant's appeal in Philip Morris v. Williams as having been "improvidently granted" in a one-sentence opinion. Mayola Williams now stands to receive up to $150 million (the judgment amount plus interest) for the wrongful death of her husband Jesse. Here's the Wall Street Journal's legal blog report of the case.

This case came before the Supreme Court three times, and has been discussed copiously by yours truly, Ted Frank, Carter Wood and others on this site (use "site search" above to find the various postings). Each time the Supremes invited Oregon courts to revise the huge punitives award -- and each time Oregon judges reaffirmed it, while varying their reasons for doing so.

The last remand was in 2007, with instructions to be sure the verdict did not punish Philip Morris for injuries to anyone other than Jesse Williams. The Oregon Supreme Court responded by reaffirming the verdict again, this time based on an independent state procedural ruling that Philip Morris had not preserved the right to appeal this question. [Since the court was interpreting its own procedural requirements, the U.S. Supreme Court cannot intervene unless that rule produces an unconstitutional result.] PM, for its part, asked the court to finally declare, once and for all, that double-digit multiplier punitives are a per se due process violation. Clearly, the justices could not form a stable majority on these two questions, and decided that no ruling at all was better than incoherence. The Oregon justices have triumphed, though of course the precedential value of the case is limited. Expect other state supreme courts to invoke procedural limitations to sidestep constitutional rulings of which they disapprove, however.

Philip Morris v. Williams - PointOfLaw Forum

Adam Liptak previews the punitive damages case.

Another Supreme Court Review of Smoker's Suit - PointOfLaw Forum

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to hear an appeal from Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria, on a $79.5 million award in an Oregon smoker lawsuit. (Philip Morris USA Inc., v. Mayola Williams, U.S. Supreme Court 07-126). Stories from Bloomberg, The Oregonian and Reuters.

This is the well-known case where the widow of a heavy smoker sued Philip Morris, claiming the smoker believed company claims that smoking was safe. In February 2007, the Supreme Court reversed on a 5-to-4 vote an Oregon Supreme Court ruling that upheld an $79.5 punitive damages award to the widow, Mayola Williams. (Opinion here.) The Supreme Court found that the trial court allowed the jury to punish Philip Morris for possible injuries to non-parties and sent the case back to Oregon -- but the state Supreme Court upheld the award, widely read as a direct challenge to the Supremes.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, issued a statement:

"Philip Morris USA is pleased that the Supreme Court has accepted review. The Court has previously instructed the Oregon appellate courts to properly apply the constitutional standards to the punitive damage award in this case. The Oregon courts have not done so, and so the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case once again," said Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and associate general counsel, speaking on behalf of PM USA.

More background from the Washington Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in support of Philip Morris.

Previous Point of Law posts:

New paper on SSRN by Sheila B. Scheuerman of the Charleston School of Law (via):

This article examines the intersection between two controversial areas of the law - punitive damages and class actions - and argues that the Supreme Court's recent jurisprudence clarifying the due process limits on punitive damages has broad implications on the procedural laws governing the types of cases that can properly be certified as a class action. Specifically, the article discusses the Supreme Court's evolving approach to punitive damages from one that considered the harm a defendant's conduct caused to society as a whole to one that now focuses almost exclusively on the harm to the specific individual bringing the lawsuit. This shift, which recently culminated in the Court's 2007 decision in Philip Morris USA v. Williams, constitutionally requires that the amount of a punitive damages award relate to the amount of harm suffered by the party bringing the suit. That requirement is at odds with class action practices that treat punitive damages as a common, class-wide issue and that have allowed juries to assess a punitive damages award before evaluating the harm to the individual class members. The article argues, therefore, that where injuries are not uniform among class members, punitive damages cannot be pursued as a class-wide remedy.

This is similar to the point made by Beck and Herrmann and Marc Moller, but ostensibly different: Scheuerman claims she is arguing for a narrower view than Beck and Herrmann do, but never delivers on her footnoted promise to address the argument in Part III of her paper.

For years smokers of "light" cigarettes have sued manufacturers for "failure to warn" that they would in fact smoke more cigarettes in order to achieve the desired nicotine intake. Norma Rose tried the opposite, alleging that Brown & Williamson and Philip Morris negligently designed cigarettes by continuing to market a product with higher levels of tar and nicotine than so-called "light cigarettes." [Yet another instance of "darned if you do...."]

The 73-year old Ms. Rose won a $3.4 million compensatory damage award against the two industry giants, plus $17.1 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris [perhaps they "deliberately" marketed the light cigs?]. Yesterday, as the New York Law Report (via reports, New York's Appellate Division, 1st Department, quashed the judgment in a 3-2 opinion.

Justice David S. Friedman wrote that Rose simply provided no evidence that low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes would "have been acceptable to the consumers that constitute the market for the allegedly defective product," regular cigarettes.

After being reversed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, including in last term's Philip Morris v. Williams case (Oct. 26, 2006; Feb. 20, 2007; much more), the Oregon Supreme Court has once again reaffirmed the $79.5 million punitive damages award. Steenson has details. SCOTUS avoided addressing the issue of excessiveness of damages, so the Oregon Supreme Court's decision is a direct challenge to that jurisprudence. The Court is going to be faced with the need to write a "No, this time we really mean it" reversal, or effectively undo its precedents in the area. (Update: Turkewitz suggests the latter outcome is likely.)

The Vioxx Litigation - PointOfLaw Columns

By Ted Frank

This piece originally appeared in the Class Action Watch, 03-31-07

On September 30, 2004, Merck withdrew its painkiller Vioxx from the market because of a study showing a small but statistically significant increase in risk of cardiovascular events from long-term usage of the drug. What had been a trickle of litigation over the drug became a flood. As of January, there were over 27,000 personal-injury lawsuits involving over 45,000 plaintiff groups, and another 265 putative class actions filed. Plaintiffs' attorneys, it seems, are using the procedural class-action mechanism to achieve substantive advantages in litigation. The vast majority of the class actions Merck faces can be placed in one of four categories.

Personal Injury Class Actions

Many seek to try personal-injury cases as a class action. There is very little chance a nationwide personal-injury class will be certified in any jurisdiction. Pharmaceutical products liability litigation requires the substantive law of fifty different states, and product liability law (as well as the learned intermediary defense) has substantial differences from state to state, making a class impossible. "No class action is proper unless all litigants are governed by the same legal rules[1]."This is because variations in state law may swamp any common issues and defeat predominance[2]."Thus, In re Vioxx Products Liability Litigation held that a nationwide personal-injury class was inappropriate in the Vioxx litigation[3].

Moreover, as Judge Fallon noted, the individualized issues are complex:

The plaintiffs' allegations that Merck failed to warn doctors adequately regarding the alleged health risks of Vioxx--whether they sound in strict liability or negligence--necessarily turn on numerous individualized issues such as: the alleged injury; what Merck knew about the risks of the alleged injury when the patient was prescribed Vioxx; what Merck told physicians and consumers about those risks in the Vioxx label and other media, what the plaintiffs' physicians knew about these risks from other sources, and whether the plaintiffs' physicians would still have prescribed Vioxx had stronger warnings been given.

Constitutional due process demands Merck have the opportunity to defend against each case individually: "one set of operative facts would not establish liability and the end result would be a series of individual mini-trials which the predominance requirement is intended to prevent[4]." Similarly, the fact that plaintiffs have individualized damages claims, including claims for non-economic damages, prevents compliance with the predominance requirements. (In the now-infamous Dukes v. Wal-Mart case, in order to shoehorn the case into certification, the Ninth Circuit permitted the class plaintiffs to waive what would be billions of dollars of non-economic damages if the complaint's allegations were true, a mechanism that seemed designed to benefit the trial lawyers ahead of any class member that had actually suffered injury.) One would not expect Judge Fallon to certify even the individual state personal-injury class actions.

An interesting question is whether Judge Fallon will be willing to hold that his federal decision would bind pending state-court class action certification decisions, or whether plaintiffs will have the opportunity to shop for a better ruling. Judge Easterbrook in In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. held that a federal ruling that a class certification was inappropriate precluded state courts from certifying a class action on the same facts, and that the Anti-Injunction Act did not prohibit a federal court from enjoining such proceedings[5].

Given the unlikelihood of a personal-injury class action certification, why would the plaintiffs' bar devote any resources? The answer can perhaps be found in the Supreme Court's decision in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah which held that the statute of limitations for individual class members' causes of action were tolled while a class action certification was pending[6]. As Jim Beck and Mark Herrmann point out on their Drug and Device Law blog, this decision creates an incentive to file putative class actions that are not necessarily strong on the merits. Ironically, as the two note, the American Pipe Court justified its holding on the grounds that, without a tolling rule, courts would be deluged with duplicative filings. But American Pipe has had no administrative advantage in practice.

Medical Monitoring Class Actions

Merck faces a variety of class actions seeking medical monitoring relief. Medical monitoring was originally devised as a remedy in the unique case of an airline accident. The case involved depressurization and hypoxia where there was no question that the plaintiff children, refugees from Vietnam, faced irreparable harm without an immediate comprehensive medical exam. Plaintiffs took that precedent and ran with it, seeking to extend it to situations where relief was not so clear-cut.

Courts have differed on the appropriateness of expansion of this new cause of action to cases where plaintiffs have suffered no physical injury. The Supreme Court, for one, rejected medical monitoring as a remedy under the Federal Employers' Liability Act in Metro-North Commuter Railroad v. Buckley, noting the dangers of creating a new cause of action that might create unlimited liability, the difficulties of having a court administer a complicated medical plan, and the individualized nature of plaintiffs' medical conditions[7]. Indeed, a wide-open medical-monitoring cause of action would expose nearly every manufacturer in America to liability, given the possibility of arguing that any given substance from automobile pollution to over-the-counter medicine to saturated fats could bring rise to the need for medical monitoring. Meritorious and meritless claims would be difficult to distinguish, and the confusion would almost certainly encourage fraud. The West Virginia Supreme Court, at the other end of the spectrum, created a medical monitoring cause of action in Bower v. Westinghouse Electric and North American Philips Corporation. A very small risk of injury was sufficient to create a cause of action, and there was no requirement that the medical monitoring be effective, or even that there be oversight by the court to ensure that lump sum payments were used for the sought-after remedy[8].

The Vioxx medical monitoring class action that is furthest along arises in Judge Higbee's courtroom in Atlantic City, Sinclair v. Merck. The New Jersey Supreme Court had already endorsed a broad medical monitoring remedy in Ayers v. Township of Jackson, which permitted a lump-sum payment in an environmental tort case involving drinking water[9]. Even so, with the exception of environmental torts, New Jersey had only permitted medical monitoring where there was physical injury. Moreover, the New Jersey products liability law required an injury before bringing suit[10]. Thus, Judge Higbee dismissed Sinclair as outside of New Jersey medical monitoring law: a product-liability suit could not claim risk of injury to support a medical monitoring remedy. The New Jersey Court of Appeals reversed on grounds that the dismissal was premature. Still, even if Sinclair returns to the trial court, there remains no evidence that Vioxx has a long-term effect once it has been metabolized from the system, and thus no scientific evidence supporting a medical monitoring remedy.

"Consumer Fraud" Class Actions

The greatest danger to Merck shareholders comes from the dozens of "consumer fraud" class actions seeking recovery under various broad state consumer fraud laws. These lawsuits seek recovery, claiming not that Vioxx caused them personal injury, nor that Vioxx did not effectively alleviate pain, but that, because Merck allegedly failed to disclose information to the public, it received a higher price than it would have otherwise. Plaintiffs argue that the broadest of these consumer fraud laws do not require any showing of reliance, or a showing that the consumers for whom recovery is sought were affirmatively misled. In one such case, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68 Welfare Fund v. Merck, Judge Higbee held that New Jersey's consumer fraud laws applied to all of Merck's United States sales and certified a nationwide class of third-party insurers; an intermediate court affirmed that class certification, which is now pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which will hear argument shortly.

This class action certification did not take into account basic choice-of-law principles by applying New Jersey law to transactions in all fifty states, regardless of the location of the doctor who prescribed the drug, the patient who took the drug, or the third-party payor. The court's rationale asks, in effect, "What state wouldn't want stricter consumer-fraud liability?" But defendants maintain that it is reasonable to assume that several states are concerned about the disincentives created by overdeterrence when consumer liability attaches without injury at the same time liability attaches with injury[11].

Second, the court undid the statute's requirement that consumer fraud must be shown to cause an individual's injury by rewriting the requirement to fit the class action, and holding that it was sufficient to allege "pervasive" defendant misconduct. But class actions are procedural devices, and cannot change the underlying substantive law or the rights of a defendant to present every available defense (a right reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Philip Morris v. Williams). Third, it remains unclear how "ascertainable loss" is going to be calculated on a class-wide basis. Every third-party payer has its own individualized means of determining which prescription drugs will be covered by its formulary. Should the Local 68 suit proceed, plaintiffs will seek treble damages disgorging billions of dollars paid to Merck for Vioxx, plus attorneys' fees.

Shareholder Class Actions

Merck stock dropped dramatically when it announced the withdrawal of Vioxx from the market. And where there is a large drop in stock price, a shareholder class action usually follows, demanding that present shareholders compensate previous shareholders' losses (with a substantial commission for the trial lawyers who make the arrangement). Investors who are diversified shareholders are hurt by such lawsuits in the aggregate: the lawsuits merely transfer wealth from their left-hand pocket to their right-hand pocket, because ex ante, one is just as likely to be a seller of an artificially inflated share of stock as a buyer, and shareholder lawsuits do nothing to disgorge wealth from the innocent sellers. (Inside trades are, of course, another matter.) But attorneys' fees are calculated on the aggregate, and, of course, shareholders also pay for the defense of such claims.

A major event in any shareholder class actions comes when the court chooses the lead plaintiff. The internecine battle is especially noteworthy in this instance, because one of the lead firms appointed, Milberg Weiss, is under the shadow of an indictment after two of its regular lead plaintiffs pled guilty to taking kickbacks from the firm. Its lead client fired the firm, but Milberg Weiss did not inform the court, resulting in months of further litigation that was resolved when Milberg Weiss agreed to cut in another firm, Bernstein Litowitz, in the lead-counsel pay-offs. Merck's motion to dismiss the entire case is pending.

Ted Frank is a resident fellow and director of the Liability Project at AEI.


1 In re Bridgestone/Firestone, 288 F.3d 1012, 1015 (7th Cir. 2002) ("Firestone I").
2 Castano v. American Tobacco Co, 84 F.3d 734, 741 (5th Cir. 1996).
3 ___ F.R.D. ___, 2006 WL 3391432 (E. D. La. Nov. 22, 2006).
4 Steering Committee v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 461 F.3d 598, 602 (5th Cir. 2006). See also Philip Morris v. Williams (U.S. Feb. 21, 2007).
5 333 F.3d 763 (7th Cir. 2003).
6 414 U.S. 538 (1974).
7 521 U.S. 424 (1997).
8 522 S.E.2d 424 (W.Va. 1999). See generally Victor E. Schwartz et al., Medical Monitoring: The Right Way and the Wrong Way, 70 MO. L. REV. 349 (2005).
9 525 A.2d 287 (N.J. 1987).
10 N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2.
11 Firestone I; see generally Michael Greve, Harm-Less Lawsuits? What's Wrong with Consumer Class Actions (AEI Press 2005).

In this, my closing comment, I first pay tribute to David. I think he HAS identified a Due Process claim on originalist grounds (since, as he almost concedes, modern punitives are qualitatively different from the symbolic damages of yore; and "bet the company" damages based on jury whim is standardless and lawless). Diversity jurisdiction is easy to defeat (just sue the local retailer), so that out doesn't exist. So Due Process is available, though not for the reasons given in the cases dealt with in my last comment.

Let's see if the Court did any better Post-TXO. That case was perhaps the Supremes' darkest hour concerning punitives. The dam broke in Gore. But did it break in a good way?

BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore

Mr. Gore purchased a new BMW from an authorized Alabama dealer. He loved his car. But when he took it in for service, he was informed by one of the mechanics that a panel of the car had been repainted. It turned out the car had been scratched during boat transport from Germany. BMW had followed a nationwide policy of repairing predelivery paint chips and scratches to new cars, so long as the cost of repair did not exceed 3% of the car�s suggested retail price. [If repairs cost over 3% of the value of the car, it was removed from new vehicle inventory and given to the sales team to use as a demonstrator, then sold at auction.] This particular paint job cost way under the 3% limit, and it was also under the Alabama consumer protection limit, as that law had always been understood. So BMW shipped the car to its Alabama dealer, who sold it new.

Gore brought this suit for compensatory and punitive damages against BMW, alleging, inter alia, that his car had a lower resale value because of the repainted part; he considered himself a victim of the tort of fraud. Again, local plaintiff, out-of-state defendant. The jury returned a verdict finding BMW liable for compensatory damages of $4,000, the alleged difference in resale value between a �concourse� car and one that had a repainted panel [But wait -- did BMW sell the car for "concourse" purposes? Sigh...] . The jury also assessed $4 million in punitive damages, on the grounds that BMW had likely repainted 1000 cars over the years and should pay $4K for each. Alabama appellate courts reduced the punitive award to $2 million, which they decided was not �grossly excessive� under TXO, because that amount constituted a mere 500 times compensatories (less than the 526 multiple that passed muster in TXO).

A bare majority of the court had had enough. By a 5-4 margin (Stevens, O�Connor, Souter, Breyer, and Kennedy) the court held that a combination of the lack of real wrongdoing by BMW, the lack of notice that any punitive award was possible or even that BMW's practice was illegal in Alabama, the jury's consideration of non-Alabama touch-ups which were surely not violations of Alabama law, and the huge discrepancy between compensatories and punitives all combined to make this award unconstitutional. The court didn�t give any boundaries as to what would be a maximum limit, but said this case was beyond that limit. Three dissenters, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justices Thomas and Ginsburg, essentially held that the federal constitution did not place any limits on states in determining punitives. Justice Scalia denied that due process could ever affect damages, in federal or state court. Hmmm... it's unconstitutional, we don't know exactly why, it's a "multi-factor test", but this one is beyond the pale. Unless punitives are like obscenity (as opposed to saying "unless punitives are obscene), this decision appears rather lawless.

State Farm Insurance v. Campbell (Utah 2003)

In 1981, Curtis Campbell was driving with his wife in Cache County, Utah. He decided to pass, all at once, six vans traveling ahead of him on a two-lane highway. Todd Ospital was driving a small car approaching from the opposite direction, at a speed in excess of the speed limit. Campbell did not have enough space to pass all six vans. He was headed right toward Ospital. To avoid a head-on collision with Campbell, Ospital swerved onto the shoulder, lost control of his automobile which came back onto the road, and collided with a vehicle driven by Robert G. Slusher. Ospital was killed, and Slusher was rendered permanently disabled. The Campbells escaped unscathed; in fact, they never even collided with anyone � they got back in their lane safe and sound just in the nick of time thanks to Ospital�s sacrificial decision to leave the road.

In the ensuing tort suits against Campbell by Ospital�s estate and by Slusher, Campbell insisted he was not at fault since he never collided with anyone (!) and since Ospital was speeding. Campbell�s insurance company, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm), decided to contest liability and declined offers by Slusher and Ospital to settle their suits for the measley policy coverage limit of $50,000 (i.e., $25,000 per plaintiff). State Farm also ignored the advice of one of its own investigators and took the case to trial, assuring the Campbells that �their assets were safe, that they had no liability for the accident, that [State Farm] would represent their interests.� To the contrary, a jury determined that Campbell was 100 percent at fault, and a judgment was returned for $185,849, way more than the amount of Campbell�s coverage. At first State Farm refused to cover the $135,849 in excess liability (recall that Campbell had purchased only $50,000 of coverage). State Farm�s lawyer told the Campbells, �You may want to put for sale signs on your property to get things moving.� Nor was State Farm willing to post the required bond to allow Campbell to appeal. Campbell thus hired his own lawyer to appeal the verdict. While this appeal was pending, in late 1984, Slusher and Ospital's estate contacted Campbell. The three reached an agreementwhereby Slusher and the estate agreed not to execute their judgment against the Campbells� property. In exchange the Campbells agreed to pursue a bad faith tort suit against State Farm and to be represented by Slusher�s and Ospital�s attorneys. The Campbells also agreed that Slusher and Ospital would have a right to play a part in all major decisions concerning the bad faith suit. No settlement between Campbell and State Farm could be concluded without Slusher�s and Ospital�s approval, and Slusher and Ospital would receive 90 percent of any verdict Campbell obtained against State Farm. In some jurisdictions this might be seen as a fraud on the court.

In 1989, the Utah Supreme Court denied Campbell�s appeal. State Farm then decided to pay the entire $185 thousand. There were now NO pecuniary damages suffered by the Campbells.

The Campbells nonetheless filed (as they had promised the Slushers and the Ospital estate they would) a complaint against State Farm alleging the torts of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court initially granted State Farm�s motion to dismiss that suit because State Farm for lack of damages, but that ruling was reversed on appeal. Now State Farm had to defend itself. In the first phase the jury determined that State Farm�s decision not to settle for $50,000 was unreasonable. The second phase of the trial would determine damages. Remember that there were NO pecuniary damages (because State Farm had paid all the excess award). There was arguably emotional distress during the short period when the Campbells thought they were going to lose their home. Emotional distress, however, is not usually recoverable unless it was intentionally inflicted, and no one can seriously claim that State Farm is a sadistic company bent on inflicting emotional distress on its clientele. State Farm argued during phase II of the trial that its decision to take the case to trial was, in retrospect, an �honest mistake,� and that it certainly did not warrant punitive damages. The Campbells introduced evidence that State Farm�s decision to take the case to trial was a result of a national scheme to meet corporate fiscal goals (read, O HORROR, TO MAXIMIZE PROFITS) by capping payouts on claims.

Just before the second phase of the trial the Supreme Court decided Gore. Based on that decision, State Farm moved for the exclusion of evidence of all out-of-state conduct. The trial court denied State Farm�s motion. The jury then, amazingly, found $2.6 million dollars in emotional distress for the Campbells, who (to repeat) had not lost one cent. Likely the jury knew that 90% ($2,340,000) of this amount was going to the Slusher and Ospital families, and it wanted to give $260,000 to the Campbells � but this would be totally illegal if done explicitly, because the other two families had settled their suit and had no cause of action against State Farm. In addition the jury awarded $145 million in punitives, to punish State Farm for its aggressive practices throughout the country. The trial court reduced the compensatories to $1 million and the punitives to �only� $25 million, under the
TXO �really mean� standard. The Utah Supreme Court then reinstated the original $145 million punitives award. State Farm appealed to the Supreme Court.

This time the decision was 6-3. Chief Justice Rehnquist abandoned his previous position and joined the majority, leaving Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsburg alone in dissent. The majority this time tried to provide an indication that certain trial court activity would no longer be tolerated:
-Don�t ever again use legal out-of-state behavior to calculate punitive damages. Out-of-state behavior can be invoked to establish a pattern of bad faith or maliciousness, but in that case it has to be the same behavior as the behavior being impugned;
-Don�t ever give more than nine times compensatories as punitive damages, the court said, unless there is a �particularly egregious act that has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages.�
-Moreover, in cases like this one, where the compensatory damages adjudged by the jury are extremely generous, do not let punitives exceed compensatories.

Philip Morris v Williams [Oregon 2007]

As is now well known, Justice Breyer (writing for four others) held that the Due Process Clause does not permit a jury to award punitive damages for harm caused to individuals other than the plaintiff, even in a case of egregious conduct (fraud -- yet see my very first comment in this series -- if you believe there was fraud I have that bridge for sale...). Yet in Gore the Supremes had apparently allowed a jury to award punitive damages for harm caused to individuals other than the plaintiff (so long as the other individuals were in-state). Without this rule, the Court held, defendants would be subjected to a �standardless� damages determination, without fair notice of the punishment to be imposed, and without the opportunity to fully refute the alleged harm to nonparties. But why were the Supremes suddenly concerned about "standardless" interpretation -- this issue had not troubled them in Haslip, TXO and maybe even Gore. Harm to others would be allowed in evidence to ALLOW FOR punitives, but not to CALCULATE punitives. How would the court know that the jury had danced this delicate dance correctly? We just don't know, the Supremes never tell us. Coyly Justice Breyer at one point lets slip that if the punitives were LOWER, we might know that juries were correctly instructed and followed their instructions. But clearly there was no majority to cap punitives once and for all --

Courts will now have to craft jury instructions on this issue. We can look forward to years of litigation and circuit splits trying to sort out what the Court hath wrought.

And so we come to the end of a very rocky and unsettled road. The Supremes have no coherent view of punitive damages. Justice Stevens seemed to admit as much when he harkened for the good ol' days of Excessive Fines (recall that Oregon takes 60% of Williams' booty). This is a mess, a royal mess, and we're in for much more to come. Stay tuned folks, and thanks for reading this far.

Since Browning-Ferris had not made a timely Fourteenth Amendment claim (who knew that was the hook the Supremes would hang their hat on?), the Supreme Court expressly reserved ruling on the due process argument. In fact, Justices Brennan and Marshall hinted strongly that they thought this kind of punitive award did violate due process. But these Justices would soon leave the court.

Subsequent to the Browning Ferris decision, several states modified their statutes to provide that a certain percentage of punitive damages (up to 60% in some instances, notably in Oregon, home of Philip Morris v Williams, according to a recent Washington Post report) must henceforth be payable to the state government, not to the plaintiffs. Gee, sort of undercuts the majority's view in Browning Ferris that punitives cannot be paid to the state, so cannot be fines, doesn't it? This makes the state an explicit accomplice in the increasing acceleration of punitive awards, and puts the lie to the claim that punitives are not fines.

This set the stage for act 2 of the Supremes' Punitives Saga: Pacific Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip.

Lemmie Ruffin (I am not making that name up) was an insurance agent. He worked for a lot of insurance companies, including Pacific Mutual Life. As a Pacific Mutual agent, Lemmie sold �major medical� health insurance policies to a group of female civic employees in Alabama. They paid monthly premiums to Lemmie, and he was to forward these premiums to the company. The employees thought they had health insurance. In reality, Lemmie stopped sending money to Pacific Mutual Life, and kept the money for himself. So the insurance company gave Lemmie warning letters to give to the women (to pay their overdue premiums or have their policies cancelled) � of course Lemmie never transmitted those letters, he just kept deceiving the insurance company and the employees. Finally the women�s policies lapsed, and when one got very sick, she found she was not covered anymore. Needless to say, she sued Pacific Mutual Insurance for its �bad faith.� An Alabama jury found bad faith and inadequate supervision of Lemmie by the (out-of-state�) insurance company. The jury held that Pacific Mutual Life had to pay Ms. Haslip $230,000 to cover her hospital bills. But Ms. Haslip was not yet done with Pacific Mutual � she asked for punitive damages. Alabama�s punitive damages scheme gave a jury virtually complete discretion: it merely required a jury to make two distinct decisions: (1) whether or not to impose punitive damages against the defendant, and (2) if so, in what amount. It provided no standard for decision (1), and no method of calculation for decision (2). On the threshold question of whether to impose punitive damages, the trial court instructed the jury as follows: �Imposition of punitive damages is entirely discretionary with the jury, that means you don�t have to award it unless this jury feels that you should do so.� There was, in my opinion, absolutely no law here. Can there be "due process of law" when there is NO law? Do you agree on this theoretical point, David?

The jury condemned Pacific Mutual to $1 million in punitives. The company appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, on the grounds that it was deprived of due process by the standardless discretion invested in the hometown jury, and by the huge amount of punitives when clearly the company had had no malice whatsoever � it was just as tricked by Lemmie Ruffin as the plaintiff had been. Pacific Mutual lost its appeal, 7-1. Again only Justice O�Connor dissented. The due process claim that everyone had thought so promising after the Browning Ferris case flubbed, as the two Justices who had espoused it had left the court. The Alabama jury instruction was deemed precise enough (!) that the jury would have legal guidance about what to do. The punitive award of 4 times compensatory damages was not so exorbitant as to violate due process standards, said the majority. They did say it was �close to the line,� however. This is utterly unprincipled, sez me -- rejecting the sound "no law" argument while intimating that higher damages might somehow violate Due Process. After the rejection of the Excessive Fines rationale in Browning Ferris, Haslip represents a further slide into unintelligibilty as regards punitives.

But the darkest hour had not yet been reached. It would come, in 1993. That is act 3, TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp.

TXO and Alliance were engaged in a complex series of negotiations so that TXO could get oil and gas rights to land owned by Alliance. They were bickering back and forth over what royalty rate would be paid to Alliance. During these negotiations, a third party claimed that it owned the rights to Alliance�s land by virtue of an obscure deed. TXO expressed concern that any title it might get to the oil and gas rights was vulnerable; because of this it asked for a reduction in its royalty rate to cover itself from possible claims by this third party. After more complex and ambiguous declarations on both sides, TXO claimed that a deal had been reached, but Alliance denied it. TXO sought a declaratory judgment from the West Virginia Circuit Court that, through all these negotiations, it had finally acquired resource rights over the land.

Alliance defended against this claim, and countersued for what Alliance called �slander of title,� (an old English tort that had never once been recognized in West Virginia�s entire history), asserting that TXO was falsely diminishing public belief that Alliance had full property rights. At bottom, this suit was little more than an episode in rather hardball contractual dispute about royalty rates. That is, until the West Virginia courts got through with it. The trial judge rejected TXO�s claim that a deal had been reached. The judge let a jury decide whether Alliance�s title had been slandered. The jury accepted Alliance�s slander of title suit, and condemned TXO to pay $19,000 to Alliance for damages, which represented its lawyer�s costs in defending against the declaratory suit by TXO. Alliance had no other losses.

So far, so good, I guess � the case was a close call in a hardball contracts dispute. I have not mentioned that Alliance was a local West Virginia company, while TXO was a fully-owned subsidiary of U.S. Steel. That explains, perhaps, why the jury also condemned TXO to ten million dollars in punitive damages, or 526 times the compensatory award. TXO appealed, and had great confidence in the appeal. Recall that in Haslip punitives were �only� 4 times compensatories and the court said that was �close to the line.� Moreover, West Virginia�s instructions to the jury on punitives were so totally devoid of standards as to make a mockery of the Supreme Court�s pious command to the states in Haslip to henceforth guide the jury with some precision. Here was the standard as stated by the West Virginia Supreme Court, when it heard the TXO appeal: we know we are now compelled by the United States Supreme Court to set punitive damages standards if our decision is to pass constitutional scrutiny, so we hereby distinguish between the �really mean� defendant and the �really stupid� defendant. For the really stupid defendant, punitives can be 10 times compensatories. For the really mean defendant, punitives can be 500 times compensatories. Since this defendant �failed to conduct [itself] as a gentleman�, the �really mean� standard applies, and 526 times punitives is close enough to 500, so we uphold the award.

[pause to allow readers to gasp]

The Supreme Court affirmed the West Virginia Supreme Court, 6-3, saying that its standard passed constitutional scrutiny. Justices White and Souter joined Justice O�Connor in dissent this time. On the one hand, O�Connor was no longer alone in thinking that there were some punitive damage awards that could not pass constitutional muster. On the other hand, this case looked like MOPA (the mother of all punitive awards), and if six Justices found it constitutional, one wondered what could possibly fail to pass muster. Again, in my opinion, the WV court called the Supremes on their incoherent Haslip jurisprudence.

Tomorrow I will deal with Gore and Campbell, wherein the Supremes seemed to decide to rescue tort law from the abyss perhaps approached through its poor Browning Ferris and Haslip jurisprudence.

Where has this left us? Are there any disagreements between David and me? Perhaps we disagree about whether "condemn the defendant to any amount you please" satisfies Due Process of Law requirements? And as David suggested, we may disagree (though David's jury seems still out on this onw) about the Excessive fines issue. But we surely agree that by TXO the Supremes were in it up to here...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, David. Let me address the way I see the general boundary between private and public ordering in today's edition, then tomorrow perhaps I will indicate why the Philip Morris case was an excellent candidate to establish that boundary.

[NB These thoughts replicate to some extent a much more extensive discussion in Engage, the Federalist Society's academic journal. That article can be found here (scroll to page 118).]

Wrongful behavior without damages creates no corrective justice requirement. Driving home while drunk is negligent, and exposes others on the road to undue danger. It is good, I think, that DUI is a crime and that the state sanctions misbehavior with fines and/or imprisonment. So, if a drunk driver makes it home without hitting anyone, he has no tort liability toward anyone. Note that he may have committed a crime � but that is a matter for public ordering, with all the protections provided when the power of the state is involved (constitutional protection against self-incrimination, double jeopardy rule, strong presumption of innocence). The drunk who makes it home safe owes compensation to no one, because his conduct, though wrongful, did not harm anyone. It is the precise conjunction of wrongfulness and harm caused thereby that creates the tort obligation. Typically, that tort obligation consists of compensation, of righting the wrong and making good the loss - no more, no less. Compensation, moreover, has to be full. This is a definitional requirement of corrective justice, and a fundamental proposition of the common law of tort. Thus a man who negligently burns down a house worth $50,000 is liable in tort to pay $50,000 to make the home-owner whole. If the house and its contents were worth $1 million dollars, then he is liable in tort to pay $1 million to make the home-owner whole. This is not because tort favors the rich, but because tort equally respects poor and rich. All must be returned to their former state - that far but no further - when they are wrongfully harmed. Punitive damages do not fit the scheme of tort law because, by definition, punitive damages are overcompensatory. Nevertheless, in one superficial and one real form, punitive damages were present at the conception of tort law. Both of these forms can be usefully summarized here:

Superficial - In medieval days criminal and tort trials were held at the same time. For what we today call intentional torts, such as battery and trespass, there was at the same time a crime committed and a tort suffered, and both of these were adjudicated in the same judicial proceeding. So, a battery may have caused $10 in harm, payable to the plaintiff, but in the days before police forces and criminal tribunals the plaintiff could also pursue the equivalent of a criminal fine. He was in a sense the private attorney general, prosecuting the criminal case, and the fine went into his coffers. Today, though, we have county proscecutors, and fines are collected solely in a criminal setting. Those fines are subject to cherished American constitutional protections such as:

-Double jeopardy prohibition of more than one fine for the same offense;
-5th amendment protection against self-incrimination;
-8th amendment protection against excessive fines.

A tort trial offers none of those protections (compulsory discovery is self-incrimination, one tort committed against many people leads to many lawsuits, etc.). So in this superficial form, punitive damages are an anachronism with no place in tort today, having been replaced by public ordering via criminal law with all its apparatus.

Concrete - Punitives were granted as symbolic damages when there was deliberate wrongdoing but de minimis damages. If A slandered B, but B could not prove that she had lost any business because of the slander, A might nonetheless be condemned to pay B $1. If A deliberately and flagrantly trespassed on B�s land, but didn�t trample any of B�s crops, B could still sue A for nominal, symbolic damages. The damages in this case were symbolic � they recognized that one party was in the right, had been wronged by the other party, and won the suit. Suits like this might be filed both to vindicate one�s self and one�s rights, and because a �loser-pays rule� (in effect
outside America) means that the tortfeasor would have to pay his victim�s lawyer�s costs. It would not cost much to vindicate one�s rights in this way. Thus "punitives" classically were either disguised criminal fines (before the state criminal apparatus was organized), or small symbolic sums meant to vindicate inconsequential violations of a plaintiff�s rights. Since criminal fines require constitutional protections, all that should logically remain are the small symbolic vindication sums.

The survival of large punitive awards is a product of confusion between private and public ordering. That is why four states� supreme courts (Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and Massachusetts) have declared that their common law of tort does not permit punitive damages today. A fifth state (New Hampshire) has abolished punitives by statute. Any state in the union could abolish punitive damages if it wished. Many states, like Virginia, allow punitive damages for intentional torts and gross negligence, but have a statutory cap on punitive damages. Other states have no limitation on punitives at all. Yet in all states punitive damages were not really a problem, in that they were mostly symbolic until the great torts explosion of the 1980s. Up to 1976, the highest punitive damages award in the entire country was $250,000, a sobering observation in light of recent billion-dollar judgments.

I've likely bored readers enough. David, perhaps in tomorrow's edition we can sketch the way the Supremes dealt with punitives from Pacific Mutual v Haslip through State Farm v Campbell. Then on Friday we can get into the nitty gritty of the Williams.

Where is the tort/crime boundary? - PointOfLaw Featured Discussion

Browning-Ferris is a case that only recently came within my ken. One admirable aspect of it is that both the majority and the partial dissent relied on original intent, historically recovered. They reach different conclusions, of course, but no one ever said originalism always provides an easy answer: only that it provides legitimacy.

The dissent in B-F argued that "amercements" were within the range of what Magna Carta limited, and therefore also of what the English Bill of Rights and our Eighth Amendment limited, and that amercements were civil rather than criminal. This claim is worth researching further. (Beyond that, all I can say right now about B-F is that the majority scores by having Scalia on its side, but the dissent wins the Shakespeare-cite event by quoting one of my favorite characters, the Prince of Verona in Romeo and Juliet.)

All of this is a bit to one side of Philip Morris v. Williams, which bypasses the Eighth Amendment altogether and bases its holding directly on 14th Amendment Due Process. Michael and I probably agree that it would be more constitutionally legitimate (assuming the incorporation doctrine!) to curb punitive damages through the "excessive fines" clause of the Eighth Amendment than to do so through Due Process tout court.

Michael has rightly moved a key issue into center place: just what is the tort/crime boundary, and do punitive damages defy it? They are awarded in tort cases, but a common-lawyer of the time of, say, Coke could easily figure that whatever is designed to "punish" must pertain to the criminal justice system.

There is a case for deconstructing the tort-crime boundary. The modern administrative state these days often lays heavy hands on citizens through procedures that are outside the criminal justice system, and therefore, outside the constraints that the Constitution places on that system. Perhaps punitive damages are of this nature, and perhaps we should rethink the assumption that criminal-procedure restraints apply only when the government is willing to admit that a given cases is "criminal."

But, as the old Alka-Seltzer commercial said, that's a spicy meatball. The criminal justice system evolved from the early-medieval tort system for good reasons as well as bad: yes, kings wanted to be in charge of justice. But also, people wanted to be able to rely on the king's peace, not just their own ability to sue their tortfeasors. Browning-Ferris can be read as a refusal to reverse this evolution, and until the issue is thought out further, I can't quite say the majority was wrong about this.

New featured discussion: punitives in the Supreme Court - PointOfLaw Forum

Has the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly ventured into the realm of substantive due process in its attempt to oversee excessive punitive damage awards? Will the Court's latest closely divided decision, in Philip Morris v. Williams, add any clarity to the confusing law of punitive damages? Law professors David Wagner (Regent) and Michael Krauss (George Mason) will be batting around those topics, and others, in our newest Featured Discussion, now underway.

Well, it is an honor and a pleasure for this lawprof to be featured along with his illustrious student. I suppose this should make me feel quite old, but it doesn't! My only complaint is that, after my earlier featured discussion on firearm liability, "Smoking Guns" (and a book I wrote on tobacco and firearms, entitled "Fire and Smoke") this featured discussion is entitled "Smoke and Mirrors." Enough with the smoke already, it is clouding my eyes!! Nonetheless, I hope I will be able to see clearly through the maze that our Supremes have set up for us in Philip Morris USA v Williams.

The plaintiff in Williams was the widow of a long-time smoker. This widow alleged that Philip Morris deceived her husband into not quitting smoking. According to the wife, the late Mr. Williams said that ��the tobacco companies don�t even say they�re cancer sticks, so I can smoke them.�� Although his wife helpfully pointed to the warning labels on cigarette packages and told her husband that cigarettes would kill him, Mr. Williams allegedly responded: �This is what the Surgeon General says, it�s not what [the] tobacco company says.� According to his wife, Williams gave no credence to the Surgeon General�s warnings because he believed that the tobacco companies would simply not sell a harmful product. �[H]e would say �Well, honey, you see I told you cigarettes are not going to kill you, because I just heard this so-and-so guy on TV, and he said that tobacco doesn�t cause you cancer!�� Now, I don't know about you all, but I know of no one on earth who talks like the decedent allegedly did, and I know of no one who thinks that no seller could possibly fib about the quality of the product he was selling. Of course, the jury can choose to believe whom it will, and to no one's surprise it chose to believe Ms. Williams. [Is the jury interested in buying a bridge in Brooklyn from me?] What possible motive could the plaintiff have to "embellish", after all?

That said, tobacco companies' behavior over the years has certainly been reprehensible on many different levels. Thank You For Smoking is a nice caricature of Big Tobacco's awful behavior. But awful behavior does not tort damages merit! Tort damages are awarded following proof of wrongdoing, causation, and damages. Causation was established when the jury believed the astounding rendition by Ms. Williams. As to damages, well, punitive damages are essentially awarded in cases of intentional tort. Here, I guess, fraud is the intentional tort du jour.

Are there limits on punitives? My own writings, which David likely knows, claim that punitive damages cross the line between private ordering [tort, contract, property, self-determination among and between individuals] and public ordering [relations between Big Brother and lil' ol' citizens, criminal law and the like]. Not for nothing is the state subject to constitutional limitations when public ordering is involved.

As to the constitutional limitation of "due process", I like David think it is phoney-baloney (but he put this in a much more scholarly way -- since I am not a constitutional scholar, but just a torts guy, I will resort to plain English). I personally preferred "excessive fines", considered but (in my opinion very unwisely) rejected by the Supreme sages in Browning Ferris v Kelco some years back. I think the Supremes have been atoning for their sins ever since, trying desperately to find a constitutional measure to rein in out-of-control punitives after they had rejected the most obvious candidate. [And in a future installment I will explain why Williams was tailor-made for this.] At least Justice Stevens, dissenting, expressed regret about the rejection of the Excessive Fines theory.

So that's my initial volley. Like David, I think states have police power to regulate and do all sorts of silly things. Perhaps unlike David, I don't think those things include taking money from (out-of-state) corporations without providing constitutional protections.

But I don't think the Supremes in Williams gave any real guidelines about what is verboten and what is allowed. Much more litigation to follow, I'm afraid, with no one gaining but we lawyers. More on all this anon.

Till tomorrow, David.

Michael I. Krauss
Professor of Law
George Mason University

Constitutional limits on punitive damages? - PointOfLaw Featured Discussion

I had a mixed reaction to the Court's recent Philip Morris decision. On the one hand, there is a crisis of excessive punitive damages. On the other, no one who agress with the late Justice White (dissenting in Moore v. East Cleveland) that "[t]he Judiciary, including this Court, is the most vulnerable and comes nearest to illegitimacy when it deals with judge-made constitutional law having little or no cognizable roots in the language or even the design of the Constitution[]" can greet with complete delight the opening of yet another vein of substantive due process. Yet this is what the Court has done in BMW v. Gore, State Farm v. Campbell, and now in Philip Morris v. Williams.

That the Court has its hand in the substantive-due-process cookie jar in these cases cannot really be doubted. The Court's claim to address only the "procedural" question of the instruction on harm to nonparties was no doubt intended to deflect this argument, but it did not convince Justice Thomas ("the 'procedural' rule is simply a confusing implementation of the substantive due process regime this Court has created for punitive damages"), and it does not convince me.

At the dawn of the first s.d.p., the same confusion occurred. See e.g. Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul RR v. Minnesota, 134 U.S. 418 (1890). Railroads objecting to ratemaking couched their claims in procedural terms: the regulating agency did its ratemaking without giving us a special hearing, see, and all we want is that hearing. Piffle! They were going for a court-mandate role in setting rates; once the Court was convinced to strew procedural banana peels along the path of regulation, as requirements of due process, it was a short leap to declaring the regulations themselves unconstitutional.

Philip Morris v. Williams supposedly avoids the question of excessive fines, and imposes a merely "procedural" requirement that the trial judge should be clearer about the role that harm to nonparties should playing in the jury's punitive damages calculation. Why a juror should find the Court's clarification any clearer than the instrution actually given, I'm sure I don't know, but the point here is, this "procedural" rule imposes a substantive requirement: that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits civil juries from punishing defendants separately for harm to nonparties. I don't find that in the Due Process Clause. I'd be glad if it were there, but I can't find it.

The next post on this issue will be by Prof. Michael Krauss, who taught me everything I know about tort law, and with whom I expect I'll be in complete policy agreement about the general goshawfulness of heavy punitive damages.

David M. Wagner
Associate Professor
Regent University School of Law

More rough weather for tobacco defense - PointOfLaw Forum

In case you imagine that tobacco companies' litigation problems are going away -- notwithstanding the damaging California ruling discussed by Michael two weeks ago, the equivocal outcome in Philip Morris v. Williams, and the "unlawful cigarette giveaway" challenge recently green-lighted by a Massachusetts judge and discussed by Michael here -- here's yet another data point. A Louisiana appeals court has cut by more than half a $1 billion award on behalf of smokers in that state, reducing the size of the class entitled to recovery and denying pretrial interest. But it left intact enough of the rationale for the award that plaintiffs declared victory, and defendants sounded none too pleased. Still, Wall Street likes tobacco stocks these days, and Wall Street doesn't err about these things. Right?

FedSoc podcast series debuts with Epstein - PointOfLaw Forum

The Federalist Society has launched a series of audio broadcasts providing expert commentary on Supreme Court issues. The maiden podcast features none other than Chicago lawprof and Point of Law favorite Richard Epstein discussing Philip Morris v. Williams and four other high court cases, Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons, Lawrence v. Florida, Marrama v. Citizens Bank of Massachusetts, and Wallace v. Kato (via Kerr @ Volokh).

Still more on Philip Morris v. Williams - PointOfLaw Forum

Anthony Sebok has an overview on Findlaw generally agreeing with the earlier assessment raised by me and Jim Copland. Plaintiffs' attorney Eric Turkewitz has similar points about the Justice Stevens dissent.

And Beck and Herrmann do a comprehensive analysis of the law of class actions and punitive damages documenting persuasively the point earlier raised by Mark Moller that Williams will have its most impact in the class-action certification context. (Update: Bill Childs comments.)

Washington Post on Williams case - PointOfLaw Forum

The newspaper editorializes:

Regardless of what you think about tobacco companies, you should welcome last week's Supreme Court decision that repudiated an $80 million ruling against Philip Morris....Capping punitive damages is a task suited for state legislatures, and it's one states should complete.

Philip Morris v. Williams and the Wal-Mart case - PointOfLaw Forum

Mark Moller of the Cato Institute spots some language in the majority opinion that could be helpful for defendants facing large, heterogeneous class action claims like the one in Dukes v. Wal-Mart.