Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Supremes

No, you can't hurry love, you just have to wait...

Wait, wrong Supremes.

I'm referring to the Supreme Court, which came down with a remarkable decision vacating a punitive damage award against a tobacco company. I find it remarkable for many reasons.

1) First of all, I can't believe they took this case. The Supreme Court is the only federal court that can control its docket. In most instances, the Supremes can pick and choose what cases to hear. Yes, this one did involve a staggering amount of money, but it is really a routine matter of state tort law that just doesn't present constitutional issues. It is a HUGE stretch by the majority to bring this case within a due process ambit and scare court resources could have been better spent sorting out real issues.

2) I also think they are wrong on the basic legal point, about what harms the jury can consider in assessing punitive damages, and

3) Talk about strange bedfellows, Scalia and Thomas joined in a dissent by GINSBURG, where she wrote quite logically that "I would accord more respectful treatment to the proceedings and dispositions of state courts" than did the majority.


schmidlap said...

This makes no sense. Another branch off the rails: we're batting 1.000.

It doesn't give me much hope for them doing the right thing when they inevitably review the horrific ruling the DC Appeals court gave us the other day re: habeas for Gitmo detainees.

People don't seem to understand that once you've chucked habeas, there is nothing but the good will of the President (!) to keep you from being imprisoned for life without charges or any kind of hearing.

The fact that this isn't the single biggest news item of the year pretty much proves my point that we are now living in Retard America, it's irreversible, and people deserve about what they get from here on in.

I'm not Ned said...

(I don't believe my response worked, so forgive if this is doubled.)

While I agree that the courts have absolutely failed on the most crucial cornerestone of our legal system (among other things) I will humbly disagree with your assessment on this ruling.

My understanding was the award was overturned due to improper jury direction. The jury was encouraged to determine an award based on all the people of Oregon who have suffered from tobacco related illness but aren't around to sue the tobacco industry. The jury is only allowed to award damages based on the case before them and that is where the appeals courts should have thrown out the award.

I will agree that it's an odd case for the Supreme's to take up. I'll assume their motives are based on the potential of future consulting contracts.

Peter said...

The difference though, INN, is that these were punitive rather than compensatory damages. The purpose is not to make any injury whole, but rather to punish that particular defendant and to deter others. What is at issue is the egregiousness of the conduct, and the scope of harm is allowable evidence in determining punitives.

I'm not Ned said...

Yes Peter, but my understanding (or lack thereof) is that the instruction to the jury is still limited to the case presented. It's not the size of the punative damages awarded but the way the jury was instructed to award them. The punishment must be based on the case. For instance, you can't tell the jury that some act of Exxon's caused my hangnail but we also need to punish them for the Valdez oil spill. Here the jury was persuaded to establish punitive damages for injuries and actions not encompassed in the case.

I may be wrong, but based on my understanding I'm surprised the appeals court let it get past them.

Peter said...

Let's use your Exxon example. Suppose the oil spill ruined your fishing boat. You sue Exxon for say, $9,000 in compensatory damages. You could not introduce evidence of harm to others to support a claim for more compensatory damages. However, the scope of the harm FROM THE MISCONDUCT ALLEGED would certainly be relevant in setting punitives.

I'm Not Ned said...


In this case the prosecution informed the jury of the harm to others as a means to induce them to increase the award. The award was not based solely on the misconduct, but on the perceived harm to others that was never in evidence.

At least that's my understanding which makes the Supreme's response valid, except for them taking the case in the first place.