Supreme Court Refuses to Reduce Smoker’s Award

March 23, 2005

The Supreme Court declined this week to consider whether to reduce $10.5 million in damages a jury awarded against Philip Morris USA to a former smoker with lung cancer.

Justices let stand a lower court ruling that upheld the award to Patricia Henley of Glendale, Calif. At issue is whether the amount is too excessive in light of a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that limits the amount of punitive damages a jury can award.

Henley, who smoked for 35 years starting at age 15, was diagnosed in 1997 with lung cancer, which is now in remission. She sued Philip Morris, accusing the firm of getting young people addicted to cigarettes and concealing the dangers of smoking.

In 1999, a San Francisco jury originally awarded Henley $26.5 million, the first verdict against a tobacco company under a 1998 state law that allows individuals to sue for newly discovered smoking-related illnesses.

In 2003, a state appeals court reduced the award to $10.5 million because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting punitive damages that greatly exceeded a plaintiff’s actual damages.

Philip Morris, a unit of New York-based Altria Group Inc., argued that the reduced award was still excessive, but the California Supreme Court rejected that appeal last September.

Of the $10.5 million award, $9 milllion are punitive damages aimed at punishing Philip Morris’ corporate conduct.

The case is Philip Morris USA v. Henley, 04-816.

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