Case: Philip Morris USA v. Williams

Date: Wednesday Dec. 3, 2008

Issue: Whether, after the Supreme Court has adjudicated the merits of a party’s federal constitutional claim and remanded the case to state court with instructions to “apply” the correct constitutional standard, the state court may instead hold the federal claim forfeited by
interposing a state-law procedural rule in a way that serves no legitimate state interest and is neither firmly established nor regularly followed.

Background: Jesse Williams of Oregon was a three-pack-a-day Marlboro smoker whose widow sued Philip Morris after he died of lung cancer in 1997. Her lawyers urged the jury to rule against Philip Morris not only for the harm the cigarettes supposedly caused to her husband but also to countless other smokers. And a jury instruction that is at the heart of this case effectively said the same. The jury ruled in Mayola Williams's favor awarding her $821,485 in compensatory damages and $79.5 Million in punitive damages. Philip Morris appealed to the Supreme Court (for the second time) and in February of 2007, Justice Stephen Breyer (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy and Souter) authored a 5-4 opinion in the company's favor. That ruling ordered the Oregon courts to reexamine that case with the Court's holding that punitive damages cannot be based on the harm presumably done to others who are not parties to the case. In this instance, other smokers not named Jesse Williams.

With the High Court's ruling in hand, the Oregon Supreme Court did not order a new sentencing trial or reduce the punitive damages award. Instead, it concluded the proposed jury instructions offered by Philip Morris — asking the jury not to base damages on perceived harm to others — were altogether unconstitutional and the trial judge was right not to use them. The determination was based on a technical reading of how the Philip Morris instructions were presented. Accordingly, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the $79.5 million punitive award.

Philip Morris is once again (for the third time) seeking relief in the Supreme Court, this time arguing the Oregon Supreme Court "disregarded" and "evade[d]" the High Court's '07 ruling. Lawyers representing Mrs. Williams write the Oregon court "faithfully followed" the Supreme Court's ruling and are asking the High Court to leave Oregon's determination — and her $79.5 million judgment — alone.

Case: Haywood v. Drown

Date: Wednesday Dec. 3, 2008

Issue: Can a New York state law prevent individuals from filing certain federal claims in state courts?

Background: Keith Haywood is serving a 15-30 year stint behind bars in New York's Attica prison. Over the years, he's been involved in several disputes with corrections officers. Haywood filed charges in state court saying the officers violated his civil rights. But his lawsuits have been dismissed because they are in conflict with state laws allowing only the Attorney General to file charges against correctional officers. The state law is designed to protect its workers from frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates. Haywood argues the state law cannot usurp federal civil rights laws.