Judge Upholds Monsanto Verdict, Slashes Landmark Damages Award
“Thus, the jury could conclude that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk.”
After much speculation that a San Francisco Superior Court could overturn last August’s landmark verdict against Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), Judge Suzanne Bolanos upheld the verdict but reduced punitive damages by over $200 million.
A jury originally awarded groundskeeper Dwayne “Lee” Johnson $250 million in punitive damages and another $39.25 million in compensatory damages last August in a lawsuit over Monsanto’s flagship product, the weedkiller Roundup. Bolanos reduce the punitive damages to $39.25 million to match the compensatory award.
Is Glyphosate Carcinogenic?
Johnson has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which he claimed was in part caused by his use of Roundup. Roundup contains the ingredient glyphosate, which is the most widely used agrochemical in history. Monsanto has always denied any causal relationship between glyphosate and cancer.
Whether glyphosate is carcinogenic is disputed. The World Health Organization labeled glyphosate “probably carcinogenic” after a year-long review published in 2015 that involved 17 scientists from 11 countries. The U.S.’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled glyphosate carcinogenic.
The E.P.A. supported a National Cancer Institute cohort study completed in 2018 on glyphosate which found no tie between glyphosate use and cancer. However, Johnson’s team rejects the study and its use of imputation in research results. During Johnson’s trial, evidence also came out that Monsanto colluded with the E.P.A. to kill studies of glyphosate.
Johnson’s trial is the first of over 4,000 lawsuits targeting Monsanto/Bayer, all allege that exposure to glyphosate or Roundup caused their cancer or other adverse health effects. Johnson’s team said they were not asking for the removal of glyphosate from Roundup, but rather that the product bottle provide a warning that exposure to the herbicide may lead to conditions Johnsons.
Did Monsanto Act With Malice?
Just weeks ago Judge Bolanos expressed doubt that Monsanto acted with malice by not warning Johnson of the potential dangers of Roundup – a requirement for a punitive damages award. She said there is no sufficient evidence to back up the claim of malice.
On October 10, eight jurors and two alternates attended a hearing where Bolanos indicated she might overturn the damage award and possibly even grant Monsanto a new trial for the punitive damages. This prompted several to write letters urging the judge not to overrule their verdict.
“I urge you to respect and honor our verdict and the six weeks of our lives that we dedicated to this trial,” juror Gary Kitahata wrote. Juror Robert Howard said the jury paid “studious attention” to the evidence and any decision to overturn its verdict would shake his confidence in the judicial system.
On Monday Bolanos reversed course and upheld the jurors’ ruling, though still significantly reducing the punitive damages.
“Thus, the jury could conclude that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk,” Bolanos wrote in her ruling.
Johnson’s Team Reacts
Johnson and his team have until December 7, to decide whether or not to accept the reduced punitive damages award. If Johnson refuses the reduced amount of $39.25 million in compensative damages and $39.25 million in punitive damages (down from $250 million), Bolanos will set a new trial just to argue the punitive damages.
“This jury was intelligent, diligent, and followed the letter of the law,” said Brent Wisner, Johnson’s attorney. “We are happy the jury’s voice was acknowledged by the court, even if slightly muted.
“Although we believe a reduction in punitive damages was unwarranted and we are weighing the options, we are pleased the court did not disturb the verdict,” Wisner added. “The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming.”