Clearing the Smoke from Philip Morris v. Williams: The Past, Present, and Future of Punitive Damages

89 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2008

See all articles by Thomas Colby

Thomas Colby

George Washington University Law School


In Philip Morris v. Williams, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not permit the imposition of punitive damages to punish a defendant for harm caused to third parties. This Article critiques the reasoning, but seeks ultimately to vindicate the result, of this landmark decision. It argues that, although the Court's procedural due process analysis does not stand up to scrutiny, punitive damages as punishment for third-party harm do indeed violate procedural due process, but for reasons far more profound than those offered by the Court. To reach that conclusion, the Article confronts the most basic and fundamental questions about punitive damages - questions that the Supreme Court has studiously avoided for more than a century: what, exactly, is the purpose of punitive damages, and how is it constitutional to impose them as a form of punishment in a judicial proceeding without affording the defendant the protection of the Constitution's criminal procedural safeguards?

The Article argues that punitive damages are properly conceived of a form of punishment for private wrongs: judicially sanctioned private revenge. As such, the Article explains, it makes both theoretical and doctrinal sense to impose them without affording the defendant criminal procedural protections, which are necessitated only for the punishment of public wrongs on behalf of society. When, however, courts employ punitive damages as a form of punishment for public wrongs, they become a substitute for the criminal law and thus make an intolerable end run around the Bill of Rights. For that reason, Williams was ultimately correct that punitive damages must be limited to punishment for the harm done to the individual plaintiff, not the harm done to the general public.

The Article concludes by considering the future of punitive damages in light of the Williams decision. It concludes that, contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom, Williams does not stand in the way of the imposition of substantial extra-compensatory damages of the type favored by law and economics scholars as a means of forcing the defendant to internalize the costs of its behavior in order to achieve optimal deterrence. It is the fact that punitive damages punish, and that they do so in order to vindicate the interests of the state, that precludes their use to address third-party harms. Once the element of punishment is eliminated from the remedy, the constitutional infirmity at issue in Williams is ameliorated.

Suggested Citation

Colby, Thomas, Clearing the Smoke from Philip Morris v. Williams: The Past, Present, and Future of Punitive Damages. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 118, pp. 392-479, 2009, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 415, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 415, Available at SSRN:

Thomas Colby (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

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