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Supreme Court dismisses appeal in tobacco case with $79.5 million verdict

The case was considered one of the most important of the current term because it suggested the justices were headed into a showdown with the Supreme Court of Oregon.

Mayola Williams is the widow of Jesse Williams, who was a lifelong smoker. She is shown here leaving the US Supreme Court in 2006. On Tuesday, the high court threw out Philip Morris's appeal in her case.

Dennis Cook/AP/file

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After a 10-year court battle, the widow of a lifelong smoker will finally be able to collect her portion of a $79.5 million punitive-damages award against tobacco company Philip Morris.

The development came Tuesday with a surprise announcement that the US Supreme Court had decided to dismiss the tobacco company's appeal without reaching any decision on pending issues.

The action left undisturbed an earlier decision by the Oregon Supreme Court upholding the award to Mayola Williams.

The case was considered one of the most important of the current term because it suggested the justices were headed into an unprecedented showdown with the Supreme Court of Oregon.

The Oregon court has previously upheld the $79.5 million verdict. In contrast, the US Supreme Court has suggested that it might amount to excessive punishment.

Rather than address the excessive-damages issue itself, the US Supreme Court twice sent the case back to the Oregon courts. Both times, instead of reducing the verdict, the Oregon high court affirmed it. In early 2008, it did so by citing state law grounds beyond the scope of the US Supreme Court's remand order.

Some analysts viewed that action as open defiance of the US Supreme Court. Others defended the Oregon high court's approach. Regardless, the stage appeared set for judicial fireworks.

Until Tuesday.

Rather than a fiery exchange, Philip Morris v. Mayola Williams ended with a fizzle.

"The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted," the court said in its one-line order.

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