The ruling in Williams v. Philip Morris hopefully will be the final legal step in a 12-year-long effort to get the tobacco company to pay the state’s share of the $79.5 million in punitive damages that a Multnomah County jury awarded in 1999. With interest, the damages currently are estimated at $100 million, of which the state will get approximately $55 million.
The jury based the punitive damages award on Philip Morris’ “extraordinarily reprehensible” conduct in concealing the health risks of smoking. The plaintiff, Mayola Williams, was the widow and personal representative of Portland resident Jesse Williams, who died of lung cancer in 1997 after decades of smoking.
Philip Morris subsequently argued that the state had released its claim to its share of these damages by entering into a multi-state settlement with tobacco companies that included Philip Morris. (Under Oregon law, the state is entitled to 60 percent of punitive damages awards; however, as a result of an agreement between the state and Williams, the state agreed to accept less than 60 percent. In exchange, Williams’ attorneys argued – with the state – that Philip Morris was not entitled to keep 60 percent of the jury’s punitive damages award. Williams was represented by Portland attorney James S. Coon and the state by Stephanie Striffler, a senior assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ).
The Portland-based National Crime Victim Law Institute also filed an amicus curiae “friend of the court” brief in support of Williams.
Under Oregon law, the state’s $55-million share must be used to benefit crime victims.
Oregon Supreme Court Media Release
Oregon Supreme Court Opinion