In August of this year, a jury in San Francisco ordered agribusiness giant Monsanto – a subsidiary of Bayer A.G. – to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after years of using Roundup weed killer. But on October 24, 2018, Hon. Suzanne Bolanos significantly reduced the punitive damage award from $250 million to approximately $39.25 million.
The jury concluded that Monsanto should have known that the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup and Ranger Pro, could cause Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson’s cancer. (Johnson v. Monsanto et al., CGC-16-004995, S.F. Super. Ct, filed Jan 28.) Mr. Johnson used Roundup weed killer numerous times per year while working as a groundskeeper for a school district near San Francisco. On two occasions, Mr. Johnson had accidents in which he was soaked with the product, the first of which occurred in 2012. Two years later he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The jury also concluded that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” by supplying its product without warning of its potential danger to users. The results in this case could have legal implications as a bellwether for approximately 8,700 claims and lawsuits brought by individuals who say that their exposure to Roundup has led to serious illnesses.
Monsanto, who has consistently denied that glyphosate is dangerous, filed several motions with Judge Bolanos, who presided over the month-long trial. Following full briefing and a lengthy hearing on October 10, 2018, it appeared Judge Bolanos would rule in favor of Monsanto on nearly every issue. In her tentative ruling, Judge Bolanos found that Mr. Johnson “failed to meet the burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression by Monsanto.” During oral argument, Judge Bolanos suggested that she was prepared to vacate or at least dramatically reduced the compensatory damages.
In a stunning turn of events, Judge Bolanos issued an order denying Monsanto’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on liability and confirming the compensatory award of $39.25 million in its entirety. In addition, she reduced the punitive damages significantly, matching the compensatory award with the condition that if Mr. Johnson did not accept the reduced amount she would order a new trial for punitive damages only. On October 31, 2018, Mr. Johnson accepted the reduced punitive damages with the intent of avoiding further burden of a new trial or appeal.
It is now up to Monsanto to decide whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling, particularly on causation. There is a lot of debate surrounding the dangers of Roundup, specifically the herbicide glyphosate. Conflicting scientific studies have been released around its safety, with Monsanto representatives arguing that most studies have not found a cancer risk from glyphosate exposure.
Nonetheless, Judge Bolanos’ ruling may inspire more people to come forth with claims of injury and it might preclude Monsanto from making certain arguments in the trials to come.