U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Price v. Philip Morris

Steve Gonzalez Nov. 27, 2006, 3:18am

WASHINGTON-The United States Supreme Court refused to hear arguments that a lower court erred when tossing Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron's $10.1 billion verdict Marlboro and Cambridge "light" cigarettes.

The decision was released today with hundreds of others. The high court did not comment on its order.

Nearly a year ago the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Byron's $10.1 billion Madison County bench verdict in Price v. Philip Morris.

In a 4-2 decision issued Dec. 15, 2005, the court grounded its decision on a section of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which exempts conduct allowed by U.S. regulatory bodies.

The court held that the Federal Trade Commission authorized tobacco companies to characterize cigarettes as "light" or "low tar and nicotine."

Byron issued the verdict in 2003, citing the defendant duped smokers into believing light cigarettes were safer than regular ones.

Byron called the conduct "outrageous and evil."

The class action lawsuit was brought by lead plaintiff Sharon Price, an East Alton police dispatcher. She claimed she started smoking in 1966 and switched to Cambridge Lights in 1986.

Plaintiffs presented evidence that "light" or "low tar" cigarettes promoted at that time were no safer than regular cigarettes and, in fact, could be more harmful. They also presented evidence that defendant was aware of this.

Byron awarded the estimated 1.14 million members of the plaintiff class compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees, and prejudgment interest totaling $10.1 billion.

When the state's high court issued its decision, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote, "Plaintiffs' consumer fraud claim is fatally infirm for an additional and more basic reason: plaintiffs failed to establish that they sustained actual damages.

"The requirement of actual damages means that the plaintiff must have been harmed in a concrete, ascertainable way," he wrote. "That is, the defendant's deception must have affected the plaintiff in way that made him or her tangibly worse off. Theoretical harm is insufficient. Damages may not be predicated on mere speculation, hypothesis, conjecture or whim."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Freeman wrote, "Today marks the second time in just six months that this court has completely reversed a multibillion dollar verdict in favor of a corporate defendant."

"The manner in which these two, highly publicized cases have been decided by this court leads me to several troubling conclusions.

"There is little doubt in my mind that these decisions will send a chill wind over consumer protection. That said, I am not blind to the very real problems that exist in the world of class action lawsuits."

On May 5, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to grant a re-hearing on the case.

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