In a surprise ruling on Monday, a California judge decided to deny Monsanto’s request to overturn the guilty verdict against them and instead upheld a jury’s verdict that Monsanto’s popular weedkiller, Roundup, caused the cancer of a terminal patient and failed to warn him of the dangers of using it.
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former groundskeeper that was the first of thousands to take Monsanto to trial over Roundup, will receive some justice for his terminal diagnoses. However, judge Suzanne Bolanos did alter the punitive award for Johnson, slashing it from the $250 million punitive award originally decided on down to $39 million.
The jury reached a verdict in the case back in August, but on October 10th Judge Bolanos issued a tentative ruling ordering a new trial over the punitive damages awarded to Johnson, claiming that he failed to prove that Monsanto acted with “malice or oppression.” Bolanos then called a hearing to review arguments from both Monsanto and the plaintiff’s legal counsel after which she decided to uphold the verdict but reduce the awarded damages.
Before the judge’s announcement, five of the original jurors who had voted unanimously in Johnson’s favor wrote to her demanding that their decision not be overturned.
“The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming … 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,” Johnson’s lawyers said in a statement to The Guardian.
Bolanos wrote in her ruling:
“In enforcing due process limits, the court does not sit as a replacement for the jury but only as a check on arbitrary awards. The punitive damages award must be constitutionally reduced to the maximum allowed by due process in this case – $39,253,209.35 – equal to the amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury based on its findings of harm to the plaintiff.”
Johnson and his team can accept the new settlement or refuse it and ask for a retrial. A spokeswoman for Johnson told NBC News, “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.” They have until December 7th to decide.
“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,” Johnson’s team said. “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.”
“I hope [Monsanto] gets the message that people in America and across the world are not ignorant. They have already done their own research,” Johnson told the Guardian. “I’m hoping that it snowballs and people really get the picture and they start to make decisions about what they eat, what they spray in their farms.”
The verdict in Johnson’s case could affect the outcome in more than 4,000 similar cases awaiting trial. Johnson’s trial reached the final stage quickly due to California’s laws that allow for dying plaintiffs to have expedited trials.