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Jeff Rasansky
Jeff Rasansky
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When are Personal Injury Verdicts Excessive?

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Or maybe this should be titled "How the Oregon Courts Fought the Law – and Won."

A silly idea, right? Infighting within the judiciary?

First, some backstory: in 1997, Mayola Williams was widowed after her husband, a long-term smoker, died of lung cancer. Ms. Williams brought suit against Phillip Morris, and was awarded a $79 million dollar jury verdict for punitive damages. Ms. Williams was also awarded $521,000 in compensory damages for the actual harm itself.

Philip Morris has appealed several times, the Oregon courts standing firm in the jury verdict and monetary award.

The case, however, has reached the US Supreme Court three times, each time sent back to Oregon for review – which continued to affirm the verdict.

The first time through the US Supreme Court, back in 2001, resulted in the 9-to-1 ratio maximum between punitive and compensatory damages.

Here’s where things take a delightful twist: after the second time the case was sent back to Oregon, the Supreme Court gave explicit instructions to be sure the verdict did not punish Philip Morris for injuries to anyone other than Ms. Williams’ husband in a narrow 5-4 decision. The Oregon Supreme Court again affirmed the verdict – not based directly on these instructions, but instead on the grounds that the court is independent, located in an independent state. Essentially, the Oregon Supreme Court thumbed its nose at the US Supreme Court, saying "you can’t tell us what to do and how to do it," a procedural and perhaps constitutional slight of hand.

This decision led to the third round through the US Supreme Court as Philip Morris attemped to paint the Oregon courts as renegade. Yet it was the US Supreme Court who backed down, blinking during the staring content, dismissing the case (Philip Morris v. Williams) in a one sentence opinion: "The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted."

What does this mean: could mean many things.

Tony Mauro, a Supreme Court columnist at the

Does this signal a shift in how the merits of personal injury cases are viewed at the Supreme Court if the justices can’t agree on a basic procedural matter in light of the merits of the case?

And if the justices can’t agree, are they instead willing to defer to the state courts in how punitive damages are handled? And if so, how far is the US Supreme Court willing to defer to the guidance of the state courts?

If a majority can’t be reached, does this signal infighting within the court on this issue, either narrowly with the nature of personal injury cases, or worse, broadly in all cases?

And which state/case will be next to try this move against the Supreme Court? And will it hold water next time around?

Stay tuned.