But a lawyer for Mayola Williams, whose husband died of lung cancer in 1997 after smoking for more than 40 years, defended the large award won by his client. “This jury did a very good job,” he said in urging that the award be upheld.
The case has been closely watched by business groups who want the nation’s high court to impose new constitutional limits on punitive damages designed to punish and deter misconduct.
Businesses have long complained that punitive damages are skyrocketing out of control, can be arbitrary and encourage frivolous lawsuits. Lawyers for those who have been injured defend big awards as a way to get companies to fix harmful product defects.
The justices during the hour-long arguments showed little interest in tightening the constitutional limits on punitive damages. They instead focused mostly on a procedural questions and the instructions given to the jury.
They repeatedly asked whether the jury had been properly told and understood the distinction that it could consider the harm to other smokers in assessing the misconduct by the Altria Group Inc. (MO.N: Quote, Profile, Research) unit, but could not punish the company for the harm to others who were not parties in the lawsuit.
The justices also questioned whether the jury instructions proposed by Philip Morris were an improvement over the actual instructions. And they said they did not understand the basis for the Oregon Supreme Court ruling upholding the award.