January 31, 2008

Rationale of Oregon Supreme Court Decision in Philip Morris v. Williams Should Not Apply in California

The Oregon Supreme Court's decision handed down today finding a defendant waived its due process rights to proper calculation of punitive damages (see earlier post here) is based on reasoning which, whether valid or not under Oregon law, should not apply in California. The Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the trial court had an adequate basis under state law for refusing to instruct the jury that "you are not to punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other persons." The U.S. Supreme Court had held that a defendant is entitled to due process protections such as are reflected in this sort of instruction upon request, but the Oregon Supreme Court said the trial court properly refused the proposed instruction in this case because it included other language, some of which was erroneous under Oregon state law. Apparently, under Oregon law, a trial court can refuse a party's request for an instruction that correctly sets forth relevant principles of law - even principles essential to ensuring constitutional rights - if the proposed instruction is bundled with other language that is incorrect.

The same reasoning would not apply in California. California courts have held that, even when a proposed jury instruction is flawed, if the subject matter of the instruction is "vital" or "material" to the case and not covered by other instructions, the trial court is required to give a proper instruction that captures the substance of the law. Thus, in California, if no other jury instruction addressed the fundamental due process concerns discussed in Williams, the trial court could not properly reject a proposed instruction on that issue without providing some sort of alternate instruction to protect the defendant's due process rights. (See, e.g., Orient Handel v. United States Fid. & Guar. Co. (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 684, 698.)

How Appealing has another post on Williams entitled "The cost to Philip Morris of trying to slant jury instructions too far in its favor -- $79.5 million in punitive damages."