The Supreme Court heard a tobacco company's plea for relief from a $79.5 million punitive-damages award Tuesday, in an Oregon case that...

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard a tobacco company’s plea for relief from a $79.5 million punitive-damages award Tuesday, in an Oregon case that could illuminate the Roberts court’s approach to tort reform.

In recent years, the court has helped business on the punitive-damages issue, ruling that excessive awards violate companies’ constitutional rights. But Tuesday’s case may be especially significant because the firm seeking help is tobacco company Philip Morris, and it has been found liable not for bilking a consumer of money but for killing him.

A ruling in Philip Morris’ favor would suggest the court is so concerned about high punitive damages that it would protect even an unpopular corporate defendant. For their part, consumer and anti-smoking groups hope a court will rule against Philip Morris and show that punitive-damage limits do not apply to especially reprehensible conduct.

By the end of arguments Tuesday, however, it seemed the court was reluctant to rule broadly in either direction.

Instead, several members of the court suggested the best way to handle the case would be to send it back to the Oregon Supreme Court for clarification of technical state law issues.

“What’s worrying me about this case is … that we’re going to be in a kind of bog of mixtures of constitutional law, unclear Oregon state law, not certain exactly what was meant by whom in the context of the trial, et cetera,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg made similar points, as did Justice David Souter.

Compensatory damages are usually awarded to compensate for economic losses or pain and suffering. In most of the country, punitive damages may be added to deter and punish corporate misconduct.

Tuesday’s case began with a lawsuit in Oregon by Mayola Williams, the widow of Jesse Williams, a lifelong Marlboro smoker who died of lung cancer in 1997.

She alleged that the company had knowingly lied when it minimized the health risks of smoking in public statements beginning in the 1950s and stretching over four decades.

Jesse Williams repeatedly referred to those statements in explaining his refusal to quit smoking.

In 1999, an Oregon jury found Philip Morris liable for fraud. It awarded Mayola Williams $821,000 in compensation, and assessed the company $79.5 million in punitive damages.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit blocked a landmark judgment against the tobacco industry, allowing the companies to continue selling “light” and “low tar” cigarettes until their appeals can be reviewed.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.