Supreme Court Commentaries
Constitutional Law | Law
In Philip Morris USA v. Williams, the United States Supreme Court held 5-4 that it is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution for a jury to award punitive damages for harm caused to individuals other than the plaintiff. Thus, the Court concluded that, under the Constitution, a trial court could not levy punitive damages out of a desire to punish a company for injuries it inflicts upon others who are "essentially, strangers to the litigation." However, the Court confusingly drew a narrow and arguably contradictory distinction to justify its holding. Under Philip Morris USA, a jury may not use punitive damages "to punish a defendant directly on account of harms it is alleged to have visited on nonparties," but a jury is still permitted to consider the harm to third parties to determine the "reprehensibility" of the defendant's conduct, one of the three factors in assessing the constitutionality of punitive damages. Justice Ginsburg in her dissent wrote that the distinction "slips from my grasp."
Sachin Bansal, Philip Morris USA v. Williams: A Confusing Distinction, 3 Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy Sidebar 49-61 (2007).