Monsanto punitive damages slashed by judge; Verdict upheld

A 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.

Shares of chemical giant Bayer, the parent of Monsanto, dropped 11 percent on Tuesday in European trading, as investors had been hoping the judge would order a new trial or reduce the award by an even greater amount, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Billions in revenue could be at stake for Monsanto, which has relied on Roundup to boost revenue and profits since it was introduced in the 1970s. The lawsuit is one of hundreds alleging Roundup causes cancer, but it was the first one to go to trial. While studies have found Roundup's active chemical to be safe, the lawsuits could cause some consumers to shy away from purchasing the product. 

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.

Monsanto spokesman Daniel Childs said that the company was pleased with the reduced reward but still planned to appeal the verdict. Childs said there's no scientific proof linking Roundup to cancer.

Roundup concerns

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.

"Thus, the jury could conclude that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk," Bolanos wrote in her ruling.

Jurors upset

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 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.