The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a cigarette maker's appeal of a $79.5 million award to a smoker's widow, ending a 10-year legal fight to keep her from collecting.
In a one-sentence order, the court left in place a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of Mayola Williams. The state court has repeatedly upheld a verdict against Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA in a fraud trial in 1999.
The judgment has grown to more than $155 million with interest, and Williams stands to collect between $60 million and $65 million, before taxes and payments to her lawyers, said Robert Peck, her Washington-based lawyer.
The justices heard arguments in the case in December, but said Tuesday that they are not passing judgment on the legal issues that were presented. Instead, it is as if the court had declined to hear the case at all.
Philip Morris had argued that the award should be thrown out and a new trial ordered because of flaws in the instructions given jurors before their deliberations.
Business interests had once hoped the high court would use the case to set firm limits on the award of punitive damages, intended to punish a defendant for its behavior and deter a repeat offense.
Peck said the court has signaled a willingness to allow large awards in certain circumstances. "I think we can take from this long tale that if the behavior is sufficiently reprehensible, then larger awards are merited," Peck said.