History of the Case
1999: After Mayola Williams's three-pack-a-day husband, Jesse, died of lung cancer in 1997, she sued Philip Morris and won. An Oregon jury awarded her more than $800,000 in economic damages and $79.5 million on a claim that the company had misrepresented the harm its cigarettes could do. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the award, and the Oregon Supreme Court declined to review the case.
2003: Philip Morris appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices had just delivered two new decisions on punitive damages and returned the case, without hearing arguments, to the Oregon courts with instructions to consider the challenge in light of its new guidance.
2006: The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the new decisions on punitive damages did not change the original trial result, and that Philip Morris's misconduct was "extraordinarily reprehensible, by any measure." It upheld the award.
2007: Philip Morris appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court a second time, and the justices in a 5 to 4 vote agreed with the company that the jury might have punished the company for harm done to others, rather than to Williams. The majority said that while a jury may consider whether a company's conduct was harmful to others, it could not impose punishment based on harm to those who were not parties to the suit. Justices in the minority criticized the standard as murky.
The case was sent back to the Oregon Supreme Court with instructions to apply the new standard.
January: The Oregon justices decided not to do that. For the first time in years of legal wrangling, the court said that Philip Morris's proposed jury instructions in 1999 -- at the heart of the controversy -- had been deficient under Oregon state laws. Thus, the justices said, there was no reason to consider the new federal standards, and they upheld the punitive damages award that, because of interest, now totals about $145 million.
June: The justices accepted Philip Morris's third appeal, and said they would consider whether the Oregon court had carried out its responsibilities and whether Philip Morris deserved a new trial.