Williams v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco CompanyAnnotate this Case
A jury awarded the Estate of Jesse Williams (the Williams estate) compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages for Philip Morris, Inc.'s (Philip Morris) fraud and negligence leading to the smoking-related lung cancer death of Jesse Williams. After over a decade of appeals, during which the case has been before this court multiple times, the punitive damages award now has been affirmed. Philip Morris has paid the compensatory damages and part of the punitive damages to the Williams estate, but has refused to pay the 60 percent of the jury's punitive damages award that is allocated to the state under Oregon's split recovery statute. The state and the Williams estate have sought to force Philip Morris to pay that 60 percent share, either to the state, as the statute directs, or alternatively, to the Williams estate. The trial court ruled that the state had released its claim to those punitive damages in a settlement agreement in another action, and that the Williams estate also has no right to the portion of the punitive damages award allocated to the state under the statute. The state and the Williams estate appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeals, which certified the appeal to the Supreme Court. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that state's statutory right to a share of punitive damages is not a "released claim," as that term is defined in the settlement agreement in the other action, and therefore, the state did not release its right to pursue payment of its statutory interest in 60 percent of the underlying case's punitive damages award when it settled that other action. The Court therefore reversed the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings.