Punishing Tobacco Industry Misconduct: The Case for Exceeding a Single Digit Ratio Between Punitive and Compensatory Damages


This article addresses large punitive damages awards that juries have granted to plaintiffs in recent cases against the tobacco industry, and demonstrates why such high awards are a warranted and necessary incentive for the companies to change their dangerous course of conduct.

In State Farm v. Campbell, the United States Supreme Court announced that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages” will be constitutional. In a subsequent smoking and health case brought against Philip Morris, however, a state appeals court allowed a punitive damages award that was almost 97 times the compensatory damages award. This decision was based on a finding that Philip Morris’s conduct was particularly reprehensible. Furthermore, internal tobacco industry documents reveal that the industry knowingly has used its enormous wealth to make it exceedingly difficult for potential plaintiffs to find lawyers, and nearly impossible for those that do to maintain their cases. The industry thus has been able to evade large judgments against it and to maintain its “refuse to settle” policy.

This article, therefore, proposes that when a smoking and health plaintiff is successful at trial, the tobacco industry should be subject to a high punitive damages award because: 1) the industry’s behavior is particularly reprehensible; 2) the industry has used its wealth to engage in litigation tactics that have allowed it to evade capture; and 3) a powerful financial sanction is needed to deter lethal misbehavior when the defendant makes billions of dollars addicting consumers to its deadly product.


Health Law and Policy

Date of this Version

January 2005