The US Supreme Court yesterday dismissed an appeal by Altria Group Inc's Philip Morris unit to overturn a $79.5 million punitive damages ruling against it by the Oregon jury in 1999.
The top court's ruling leaves intact an award that has grown to more than $150 million with interest and, if paid in full, would set a record in an individual smoker case.
Of that amount, Mayola Williams, widow of an Oregon smoker, stands to be paid $58 million, with the rest going to a fund for crime victims in the family's home state of Oregon.
Today's action comes after a dozen years of litigation between Philip Morris, the largest US cigarette maker, and Williams, whose husband died of lung cancer in 1997 at age 67.
Mayola claimed in her lawsuit that her husband Jesse Williams, a school janitor in Portland who smoked Marlboros for 42 years, relied on the company's fraudulent assurances that its products were safe.
Jesse began smoking in the early 1950s while in the army. He became so addicted that he would smoke up to three packs of Marlboros a day.
''Tobacco litigation has been a war of attrition,'' said Robert Peck, the lawyer who represented Williams at the Supreme Court. ''This is a testament to sticking to principle and pursuing a case to its end.''
The high court dismissed the Philip Morris appeal without issuing an opinion, ending the third appeal the company had secured before the Supreme Court in its fight to reign in an award by an Oregon jury.
The Supreme Court's dismissal also means no new legal precedent was set on punitive damages, a development that is likely to disappoint business groups that have continued to press for additional punitive damages guidance from the high court.
However, Altria will still have a chance to argue at the lower court level that it shouldn't have to pay the 60 per cent of the award that under Oregon law goes to the state.
''If Philip Morris USA prevails, the company would be obligated to pay only the remaining 40 per cent of the punitive damages award to the plaintiff in this case,'' the company said in a statement.
Mayola told the jury that when he first fell ill he had been incredulous that Philip Morris had done anything wrong. "He'd say, 'I just don't believe it, because the tobacco company just would not do that'."
But by the time of his death he had become convinced of the firm's culpability, and his dying wish was to make cigarette companies stop deceiving people about the risks of smoking.
He told her, "Well, these darned cigarette people finally did it. They were lying all the time."
Mayola finished her testimony by saying "What Jesse had started, I wanted to finish. I wanted the tobacco company to take responsibility for what they'd been doing to people."
The Supreme Court had twice before set aside the Williams award and ordered reconsideration. In the latest case, Philip Morris was seeking a new trial or at least another hearing before the Oregon Supreme Court. (See: US Supreme Court agrees to hear Philip Morris appeal in $79.5 million damages case).
The case was one of two involving Philip Morris on the court's 2008-09 calendar. In December, the justices ruled 5-4 that smokers can sue over the marketing of 'light' cigarettes.
In 2006 the US government brought an action against the tobacco industry for racketeering. After millions of pages of documents were presented, the court ruled that cigarette firms had lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public over more than 50 years.