Punitive damage awards that are significantly bigger than the accompanying compensatory damages can pass constitutional muster if a wealthy defendant’s behavior was “extremely reprehensible,” the Second District Court of Appeal held today.

A split three-justice panel upheld a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury verdict against Philip Morris, which was sued by long-time smoker Betty Bullock. The jury awarded Bullock $850,000 in compensatory damages and $13.8 million in punitive damages. Philip Morris appealed, arguing that the punitives, approximately 16 times larger than the compensatory damages, were unconstitutionally excessive.

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