A Northern California judge on Monday upheld a jury's verdict that found Monsanto's weed killer caused a groundskeeper's cancer, but she slashed the amount of money to be paid from $289 million to $78 million.
In denying Monsanto's request for a new trial, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos cut the jury's punitive damage award from $250 million to $39 million. The judge had earlier said she had strong doubts about the jury's entire punitive damage award.
Bolanos gave DeWayne Johnson until Dec. 7 to accept the reduced amount or demand a new trial.
Johnson's spokeswoman Diana McKinley said he and his lawyers are reviewing the decision and haven't decided the next step. "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," she said.
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Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon didn't return phone and email inquiries placed late Monday.
The jury awarded punitive damages after it found that the St. Louis-based agribusiness had purposely ignored warnings and evidence that its popular Roundup product causes cancer, including Johnson's lymphoma.
Punitive damages are designed to punish companies that juries determine have purposely misbehaved and to deter others from operating similarly.
In a tentative ruling on Oct. 11, Bolanos said it appeared the jurors overreached with their punitive damages award. She said then that she was considering wiping out the $250 million judgment after finding no compelling evidence presented at trial that Monsanto employees ignored evidence that the weed killer caused cancer.
The judge reversed course Monday and said she was compelled to honor the jurors' conclusions after they listened to expert witnesses for both sides debate the merits of Johnson's claim.
The judge said jurors are entitled to accept the conclusion of Johnson's expert witness who said Roundup caused his cancer and reject the conclusions of Monsanto's expert witnesses, who concluded there's no proof the weed killer causes cancer.
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"Thus, the jury could conclude that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk," Bolanos wrote in her ruling.
Some jurors were so upset by the prospect of having their verdict thrown out that they wrote to Bolanos, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
"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.
The judge did slash the $250 million punitive damage to $39 million, the same amount the jury awarded Johnson for other damages.
Johnson's lawsuit is among hundreds alleging Roundup caused cancer, but it was the first one to go to trial.
Johnson sprayed Roundup and a similar product, Ranger Pro, at his job as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, according to his attorneys. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014 at age 42.
Many government regulators have rejected a link between the weed killer's active chemical — glyphosate — and cancer. Monsanto has vehemently denied such a connection, saying hundreds of studies have established that glyphosate is safe.
Lawyers for the plaintiff from Baum Hedlund and The Miller Firm released a statement on the ruling Monday:
"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. The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming. And, as we saw in recent days, this jury was intelligent, diligent, and followed the letter of the law. We are happy the jury’s voice was acknowledged by the Court, even if slightly muted. We are still reviewing whether we will accept the proposed remittitur or retry the punitive damages. That said, today is a triumph for our legal system. We care deeply for Lee and his family, and we are excited to share this important win with them and all those who supported this case."
Bayer, the parent company for Monsanto, also released a statement Monday on the decision:
“The Court’s decision to reduce the punitive damage award by more than $200 million is a step in the right direction, but we continue to believe that the liability verdict and damage awards are not supported by the evidence at trial or the law and plan to file an appeal with the California Court of Appeal.
“Glyphosate-based herbicides have been used safely and successfully for over four decades worldwide and are a valuable tool to help farmers deliver crops to markets and practice sustainable farming by reducing soil tillage, soil erosion and carbon emissions. There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by EPA, European and other regulators, that confirms that these products are safe when used as directed. Notably, the largest and most recent epidemiologic study – the 2018 independent National Cancer Institute long-term study that followed over 50,000 pesticide applicators and was published after the IARC monograph – found no association between glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer. Additionally, EPA’s 2017 post-IARC cancer risk assessment examined more than 100 studies the agency considered relevant and concluded that glyphosate is ‘not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,’ its most favorable rating.”