In yet another court loss for Monsanto owner Bayer AG, an appeals court rejected the company’s effort to overturn the trial victory notched by a California school groundskeeper who alleged exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides caused him to develop cancer, though the court did say damages should be cut to $20.5 million.
The Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District of California said Monday that Monsanto’s arguments were unpersuasive and Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was entitled to collect $10.25 million in compensatory damages and another $10.25 million in punitive damages. That is down from a total of $78 million the trial judge allowed.
“In our view, Johnson presented abundant—and certainly substantial— evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused his cancer,” the court stated. “Expert after expert provided evidence both that Roundup products are capable of causing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma… and caused Johnson’s cancer in particular.”
The court further noted that “there was overwhelming evidence that Johnson has suffered, and will continue to suffer for the rest of his life, significant pain and suffering.”
The court said that Monsanto’s argument that scientific findings about glyphosate’s links to cancer constituted a “minority view” was not supported.
Notably, the appeals court added that punitive damages were in order because there was sufficient evidence that Monsanto acted with “willful and conscious disregard of others’ safety.”
Mike Miller, whose Virginia law firm represented Johnson at trial along with the Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman firm of Los Angeles, said he was cheered at the court’s confirmation that Johnson developed cancer from his use of Roundup and that the court affirmed the award of punitive damages for “Monsanto’s willful misconduct.”
“Mr. Johnson continues to suffer from his injuries. We are proud to fight for Mr. Johnson and his pursuit of justice,” Miller said.
Monsanto owes annual interest at the rate of 10 percent from April of 2018 until it pays the final judgment.
The reduction in damages is tied in part to the fact that doctors have told Johnson his cancer is terminal and he is not expected to live very much longer. The court agreed with Monsanto that because compensatory damages are designed to compensate for future pain, mental suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, physical impairment, etc… Johnson’s short life expectancy legally means the future “non-economic” damages awarded by the trial court must be reduced.
Brent Wisner, one of Johnson’s trial attorneys, said the reduction in damages was the result of a “deep flaw in California tort law.”
“Basically, California law does not allow a plaintiff to recover for a shortened life expectancy,” Wisner said. “This effectively rewards a defendant for killing a plaintiff, as opposed to just injuring him. It is madness.”
A spotlight on Monsanto’s conduct
It was just two months after Bayer bought Monsanto, in August 2018, that a unanimous jury awarded Johnson $289 million, including $250 million in punitive damages, finding that not only did Monsanto’s herbicides cause Johnson to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but that the company knew of the cancer risks and failed to warn Johnson. The lawsuit involved two Monsanto glyphosate herbicide products – Roundup and Ranger Pro.
The trial judge lowered the total verdict to $78 million but Monsanto appealed the reduced amount. Johnson cross appealed to reinstate the $289 million verdict.
The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on questionable Monsanto conduct. Lawyers for Johnson presented jurors with internal company emails and other records showing Monsanto scientists discussing ghostwriting scientific papers to try to shore up support for the safety of the company’s products, along with communications detailing plans to discredit critics, and to quash a government evaluation of the toxicity of glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto’s products.
Internal documents also showed that Monsanto expected the International Agency for Research on Cancer would classify glyphosate as a probable or possible human carcinogen in March of 2015 (the classification was as a probable carcinogen) and worked out a plan in advance to discredit the cancer scientists after they issued their classification.
Tens of thousands of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against Monsanto making claims similar to Johnson’s, and two additional trials have taken place since the Johnson trial. Both those trials also resulted in large verdicts against Monsanto. Both are also under appeal.
In June, Bayer said it had reached a settlement agreement with attorneys representing 75 percent of the roughly 125,000 filed and yet-to-be filed claims initiated by U.S. plaintiffs who blame exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup for their development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Bayer said it will provide $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve the litigation. But lawyers representing more than 20,000 additional plaintiffs say they have not agreed to settle with Bayer and those lawsuits are expected to continue to work their way through the court system.
In a statement issued after the court ruling, Bayer said it stands behind the safety of Roundup: “The appeal court’s decision to reduce the compensatory and punitive damages is a step in the right direction, but we continue to believe that the jury’s verdict and damage awards are inconsistent with the evidence at trial and the law. Monsanto will consider its legal options, including filing an appeal with the Supreme Court of California.”