Because of constitutional guarantees of due process, the Supreme Court has shown a reluctance to allow punitive damages that are far out of line with compensatory damages in the same case, he said. The court's general guideline is that the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages should be below 10:1.
The court precedent, though, still leaves room for a punitive award of more than $150 million, Daynard said.
Punitive damages are meant to discourage companies or people from bad conduct, while compensatory damages are intended to pay victims for their actual losses.
"There were all these concerns about runaway awards with regard to punitive damages," said Neil Vidmar, professor of law at Duke University. "Some are saying that nine times (the compensatory damages) is the absolute limit, but actually many times, the courts have cut that down to one or two times."
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In 2008, the high court cut a $2.5 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil Corp for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska to about $500 million, saying the ratio in that case should be 1:1 with compensatory damages.
But there is "no mathematical bright line rule," said Professor Catherine Sharkey, a tort law expert at New York University School of Law.
Robinson sued R.J. Reynolds in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael, claiming the company conspired to conceal the health dangers and addictive nature of its products. Johnson, a hotel shuttle bus driver, smoked one to three packs a day for more 20 years, starting at age 13.
Robinson's lawsuit originally was part of large class-action litigation known as the "Engle case," filed in 1994 against tobacco companies.
A jury in that case issued a verdict in 2000 in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $145 billion in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in U.S. history.
That award, however, was rejected in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decertified the class. It agreed with a lower court that the group was too disparate and that each consumer had smoked for different reasons.
But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Robinson was one of them.