Major SCOTUS punitive damages ruling

Some initial thoughts on Philip Morris v. Williams from Jim Copland at Point of Law. By a 5-4 vote, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court held that a punitive damage award cannot be based in part or whole on a jury’s desire to punish harms committed against non-parties to the litigation, although (a fine distinction, if indeed a tenable one) such harms may be taken into account in determining the defendant’s degree of reprehensibility.

More: Ted comments and rounds up links, also at PoL. Roger Parloff (Feb. 20) calls the majority’s distinction “narrow” and “confusing”. And Eric Turkewitz offers one view from the plaintiff’s side (“hair-splitting”; majority’s “Clintonian parsing…was too much for four of the justices”).

One Comment

  • The opinion, via SCOTUSBlog, is here (PDF). The Court recognized that there is no cure-all jury instruction that will stop a jury from awarding punitive damages for the wrong reasons, the trial court must take some kind of action to stop it:

    The Oregon court?s third statement raises a practical
    problem. How can we know whether a jury, in taking
    account of harm caused others under the rubric of reprehensibility,
    also seeks to punish the defendant for having
    caused injury to others? Our answer is that state courts
    cannot authorize procedures that create an unreasonable
    and unnecessary risk of any such confusion occurring. In
    particular, we believe that where the risk of that misun-
    derstanding is a significant one? — because, for instance, of
    the sort of evidence that was introduced at trial or the
    kinds of argument the plaintiff made to the jury — ?a court,
    upon request, must protect against that risk. Although
    the States have some flexibility to determine what kind of
    procedures they will implement, federal constitutional law
    obligates them to provide some form of protection in appropriate

    (pp. 9-10).