For several years, I have been wondering why punitive damage awards like this one, that punish a company for various misdeeds, don't create a double jeapardy situation where defendents must pay over and over for the same "crime" (since the next individual suing also gets punitive damages).
Here's the problem: A jury in Texas already hit Merck with $259
million in punitive damages*. This number was based on a lot of
testimony about Merck's sales and profits from Vioxx, so it was
presumably aimed at punishing Merck for "errors" in their whole Vioxx
program. So if that is the case, how can Merck end up facing a jury
again coming up with a separate punitive damage award for the same
"crime"? Sure, it makes sense that Merck can owe actual damages to
individual claimants in trial after trial. But how can they owe
punitive damages for the whole Vioxx program over and over again?
Aren't they being punished over and over for the same misdeed,
violating their Constitutional protection against double jeopardy?
In the recent Supreme Court decision involving a judgment against Philip Morris, the SCOTUS didn't really take this issue on, but did take on a related issue, arguing that punitive damage awards that take into account damages against more than just the defendant violate due process, since these other damages were not tried on the facts in that case.
Today, in a decision involving an astonishing $79.5 million punitive
damage award to the widow of an Oregon man who died of lung cancer
after smoking Marlboros for 42 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that a jury in a civil case may not punish a defendant for harm to
people who are not parties to the case. To do so, the five-justice
violates the defendant's right to due process because he cannot defend
against hypothetical damage claims by people who are not involved in
the lawsuit. Furthermore, the Court said, "to permit punishment for
injuring a nonparty victim would add a near standardless dimension to
the punitive damages equation." Although this makes sense to me, the
Court's proposed solution"”that juries may consider harm to nonparties
in judging the "reprehensibility" of a defendant's conduct but not to
"punish a defendant directly" for that harm"”seems untenable.