How can a jury increase a punitive damages award for a defendant’s “reprehensible” conduct that harmed nonparties to the litigation without crossing the line into punishing the defendant for that conduct? This is the conundrum the Supreme Court has left for judges, trial attorneys and state legislatures to answer in the wake of the Court’s recent ruling on punitive damages awards.
In Philip Morris USA v. Williams, No. 05-1256 (Feb. 20, 2007), the Court held that an Oregon jury’s $79.5 million punitive damages award in a case brought by the widow of a smoker violated the Constitution’s Due Process Clause. The punitive damages award, which was roughly 97 times the amount of the compensatory damages award, was based in part on the jury’s desire to punish the defendant for harming persons who were not parties to the lawsuit. The Court held that juries cannot punish defendants for harm caused to nonparties, but juries can consider harm to nonparties when determining the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.
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