A California appeals court on Monday upheld a groundbreaking verdict that Monsanto’s widely used weed killer caused cancer in a school groundskeeper – but the panel also drastically slashed his damages from $78.5million to $21.5million.
The 1st District Court of Appeal said there was evidence to support a California jury’s 2018 decision that ‘Monsanto acted with a conscious disregard for public safety,’ but it reduced the damages to Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson, of Vallejo, because state law doesn’t allow damages for reduced life expectancy.
The original San Francisco Superior Court jury found that St. Louis-based Monsanto had purposely ignored warnings and evidence that glyphosate, the active ingredient in its popular Roundup and Ranger Pro products, causes cancer.
Johnson, then 46, alleged that his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the result of his spraying Ranger Pro on school grounds in Benicia between 2012-2016, including after his diagnosis.
Jurors awarded Johnson $289.2million but a judge later reduced the punitive damages, knocking down the total to $78.5million.
In further reducing the total award, the appellate court ruled 3-0 that state law entitled Johnson only to compensation for future harm he was ‘reasonably certain’ to suffer. He had been given only two to three years to live.
‘Although we have concluded that a reduction in the damages awarded is appropriate, we do not otherwise reverse the judgement,’ the three-judge panel said, affirming Monsanto’s liability in the case.
‘In our view, Johnson presented abundant — and certainly substantial — evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused his cancer,’ the judges said in their ruling. ‘Expert after expert provided evidence both that Roundup products are capable of causing non-Hodgkin´s lymphoma and caused Johnson’s cancer in particular.’
R. Brent Wisner, a lawyer for Johnson, said the ruling was an overall victory but the court should not have reduced the damage award.
‘This effectively rewards a defendant for killing a plaintiff, as opposed to just injuring him,’ Wisner told the San Francisco Chronicle.
He added: ‘That Lee will not live an entire life with his wife and children should be compensable. Hopefully, when this issue gets before the California Supreme Court, we can change this irrational law.’
Bayer AG, the German corporation that acquired Monsanto two years ago for $63billion, called the reduction ‘a step in the right direction’ but said the appellate panel should have thrown out the verdict and said it may appeal to the California Supreme Court.
‘We continue to stand strongly behind the safety and utility of Roundup, a position supported by four decades of extensive science and favorable assessments by leading health regulators worldwide,’ the company said in a statement.
Johnson’s case against Monsanto was the first in the US to reach trial. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by people alleging they got cancer from using Monsanto’s weed killers.
More than $110million was awarded in two other San Francisco Bay Area lawsuits over Roundup. The verdicts are being appealed.
Edwin Hardeman, of Windsor, California, sued in federal court in February 2016 over his use of Roundup and was awarded $80 million, later reduced to $25 million.
In May 2019, Bayer was ordered to pay $2billion – eventually slashed to $86million – to Alva and Albert Pilliod, who claimed the chemical in Roundup caused their cancer.
Last month, Bayer AG announced that it will settle other lawsuits by paying nearly $10billion to as many as 125,000 people. The company is not admitting any wrongdoing as part of its settlement package.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as a probable cause of human cancer in 2015. The US Environmental Protection Agency and most regulatory bodies in Europe say it can be used safely.