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Big Tobacco Gets Small Break

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned an $79.5 million lawsuit against Philip Morris today.

The case, Philip Morris USA v. Williams, tested the power of juries to impose large punitive awards against tobacco corporations in product-liability trials.

In their ruling, the justices decided to follow the precedent that punitive damages should typically match "actual" damages.

The case originated in Oregon from the family of a Jesse Williams, who died in 1997 from a smoking-related disease. A jury had originally awarded the family $800,000 in compensatory damages in 1991 and $79.5 million in punitive damages.

Williams smoked up to three packs a day for 47 years. Court records say Williams never believed that cigarettes were a health danger, until he got cancer. The Oregon jurors said Philip Morris engaged in fraud and negligence affecting a large number of people over five decades.