The U.S. Supreme Court is presented today with the opportunity to untangle the web of confusion concerning punitive damages. The case before the Court, Philip Morris USA v. Williams, No. 05-1256, squarely presents the issue of whether it is constitutionally permissible for a jury in a non-class setting to factor into its calculation of punitive damages harms that may have been caused to non-parties by a defendant’s alleged misconduct.

The legal community, defense and plaintiffs bar alike, has kept a close eye on this matter, not only because the Court may clarify the substantial ambiguity surrounding punitive damages and questions of due process, but also because the Court’s decision may have the practical impact of foreclosing “phantom class actions.” To date, plaintiffs’ counsel have had almost unbridled access to the economic benefits typically reserved to class action settings without having to satisfy the required evidentiary burden addressing the commonality factors of predominance and superiority among class members.