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Supreme Court hears Philip Morris punitive damages appeal

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Tuesday in Philip Morris USA v. Williams [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-1256, a case challenging the punitive damages awarded in a wrongful death action against Philip Morris USA [corporate website] brought by the relatives of a longtime smoker. Earlier this year, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld a jury award of $80 million [opinion text; JURIST report] in punitive damages because the marketing tactics of Philip Morris were "reprehensible." A lawyer for the tobacco company argued that punitive damages can only be awarded for the case at hand and not to punish the company for other smokers. Although the Supreme Court sent the award back to the Oregon Court of Appeals and requested that it consider it using the guidelines for calculating punitive damages established in the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in State Farm v. Campbell [opinion], the justices in argument seemed unsure of how to apply prior rulings that limit punitive damages and contemplated sending the appeal back to the state Supreme Court once again for an explanation.

Also Tuesday, the Court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in Lawrence v. Florida [Duke Law backgrounder, merit briefs], 05-8820, where the justices are considering a challenge to the rules surrounding the one-year filing deadline for making habeas corpus claims in federal court. Florida death row inmate Gary Lawrence, convicted of pre-meditated murder in the first degree, is questioning whether the deadline is suspended while the Supreme Court reviews his petition for post-conviction review. Lawrence first sued Florida for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 USC 2254 [text] after exhausting his appeals based on his claim of ineffective assistance. After the district court dismissed Lawrence's petition as being barred by the statute of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [text], the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF], holding that Lawrence had no valid exemption from the statute of limitation. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Lawrence claimed his writ of habeas corpus should not have tolled while he waited to see if the Supreme Court would hear his case. Lawrence moreover argued that his lawyer was responsible for making the legal filings on time and highlights what critics say are problems with court-appointed attorneys for death row inmates in Florida. AP has more.

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