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Philip Morris Appeal of $79.5M Punitive Damage Award Rejected

The U.S. Supreme Court today turned away an appeal by Philip Morris and its subsidiary Altria Group Inc., who sought to overturn a $79.5 million punitive damages order awarded to the widow of an Oregon cigarette smoker.

The nation's top court rejected Philip Morris's appeal in a brief statement, without any legal analysis or opinion. But the action means that the tobacco giant's efforts at overturning or reducing the huge 1999 Oregon jury award have likely come to an end. And big companies -- who had their hopes pinned on some kind of definitive word from the Court on limits for punitive damage awards in high-profile injury cases -- also came away disappointed.

Punitive damages are usually awarded in personal injury or product liability cases where a jury decides that the defendant's conduct was particularly offensive or reckless. These kinds of damages go beyond the kind that are meant to "make the plaintiff whole," and are intended to send a strong message that will deter similar harmful conduct by others in the future (i.e. other large corporations whose products may cause harm, in the Philip Morris case). The idea, especially where punitive damage awards in injury cases against big corporations are concerned, is to hit them where it hurts -- right in the wallet.