Krauss on Landmark Punitive Damages Case

The Supreme Court's ruling overturning a large punitive damage award to a smoker's widow forces jurors into an "intellectual straightjacket" claims Professor Michael Krauss, commenting in a Legal Times article covering the Court's decision in Philip Morris USA v. Williams. In a 5-4 vote in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined the majority, the Court ruled that a state violates the Constitution's due-process clause when it uses a punitive damage award to punish a defendant for injuries suffered by parties not involved in the actual litigation.

High Court Rejects Award in Philip Morris Case, Legal Times, February 20, 2007. By Tony Mauro.

"Commentators and dissenters questioned how the Court's ruling will be applied in real courtrooms. Breyer said judges will have to be vigilant in ensuring that jurors only consider harm to others in assessing reprehensibility, not in deciding the level of punitive damages. 'State courts cannot authorize procedures that create an unreasonable and unnecessary risk of any such confusion occurring,' Breyer said.

"'It seems, then, that jurors can think about harm to others in deciding that the conduct was awful enough to merit punitive damages' in the first place, said Michael Krauss, torts professor at George Mason University School of Law. 'But then they can't think about it anymore, because when they set the amout of the damage award, the Court is saying it has to reflect only the harm to the plaintiff. You'll have to wash your brain out' between steps.

"Krauss adds,'How you force the jury into this intellectual straightjacket isn't clear. What is clear is that this issue will be back before the Court.'"

Read the article 

For more of Professor Krauss's commentary on the Philip Morris USA v. Williams decision, please see:

Richmond-Times Dispatch

The Bond Buyer
 (subscription only)