Tuesday, February 20, 2007, 3:23 PM

US SCT Hands Down Big Punitive Damages Ruling

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Philip Morris v. Williams. (For my earlier post on the oral argument, see here.)

The ruling isn't terribly remarkable; the Supreme Court had signaled it in earlier cases. The upshot: The Due Process Clause forbids a State from using punitive damages to punish a defendant for injury it inflicts on nonparties.

Thus, a jury may not award punitive damages (or increase the amount of punitive damages) for the purpose of punishing a defendant for harming persons other than the plaintiffs though similar conduct.

Here's the rub: If you're up against a claim for punitive damages and the plaintiff puts on evidence concerning actual or potential harm to others, you'd be wise to request a jury instruction (citing Philip Morris v. Williams) that, in determining how much punitive damages, if any, to award for harm suffered by the plaintiff, the jury may not consider alleged harm to other persons or companies who are not parties to the action.

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