The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a jury's verdict that Philip Morris USA owes Fred Laramie's widow for getting him hooked on cigarettes when he was just 13 and then feeding his habit until he died of lung cancer in 2016.
The court rejected an argument by Philip Morris that the claim should never have even reached a jury because of a 1998 settlement between the company, Massachusetts and other states over the harmful effects of its products, which the company claimed meant nobody in Massachusetts could ever again sue, under the legal doctrine of "claims preclusion." Under that theory, a legal matter, once settled, cannot be brought up for reconsideration by one of the parties to the suit. The tobacco company argued that, as a Massachusetts resident, Laramie's widow share enough common interests with the state, that she was essentially trying to re-litigate the 1998 settlement.
Wrong, the state's highest court said. The state's suit, and those of other states, reflected overall public-health concerns about the issues related to cigarettes. In contrast, Pamela Laramie of Lynn was not seeking damages on behalf of all the survivors of dead Massachusetts smokers, just for herself and her family. And she sued under the state's wrongful-death law, unlike the state, which had sued under the state's consumer-protection law.
Thus, the plaintiff's interest in an award of punitive damages was not a general interest in punishing Philip Morris for selling defective Marlboro cigarettes or in recovering for harms to the public at large; rather, the plaintiff asserted a personal interest, tied to punishing Philip Morris for the harm its conduct specifically inflicted on the plaintiff's husband, Laramie. See Williams, 549 U.S. at 353.
This interest in punitive damages was not adequately represented by the Attorney General in the prior action. To be sure, where a State litigates on behalf of its citizens' "common public rights," judgments resulting from such litigation will bind the State's citizens and, as to those rights, will have preclusive effect. ... Such litigation does not, however, bar citizens from recovering for injuries to private interests.
Here ... the plaintiff sought punitive damages for Laramie's death under the wrongful death statute, and her award was tethered to the harm the jury determined that Philip Morris had inflicted on Laramie. By contrast, the Attorney General's interest in punitive damages in the 1995 action stemmed from the consumer protection act, G. L. c. 93A, and was tied to the harm Philip Morris had inflicted on the Commonwealth, in the form of increased medical expenditures incurred by the Commonwealth as a result of Philip Morris's unfair and deceptive trade practices.