Trials & Litigation

Judge slashes $211M from punitive award in Roundup cancer case

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A San Francisco judge has slashed a punitive damages verdict by about $211 million in a lawsuit claiming the weed killer Roundup caused a groundskeeper’s cancer.

Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos reduced punitive damages on Monday from $250 million to $39.25 million, the same amount jurors awarded in compensatory damages, report Courthouse News Service, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. The National Law Journal posted the opinion.

If lawyers for 46-year-old plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson reject the lower award, Bolanos will order a new trial on the punitive damages issue. Johnson’s case was the first to go to trial among around 4,000 pending suits.

During an Oct. 10 hearing on the award, Bolanos questioned whether Johnson’s lead lawyer, Brent Wisner, had crossed a line when he told jurors that lawyers for Roundup’s maker were waiting for the verdict and, “if the damages number isn’t significant enough, champagne corks will pop.”

Roundup was made by Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer AG, a German pharmaceutical company.

Two jurors told the Wall Street Journal that Wisner’s remarks didn’t influence them. “Obviously he was being theatrical, but that’s what attorneys do,” said juror Gary Kitahata.

Bolanos had earlier indicated she was considering tossing the entire $250 million punitive award because lawyers for the plaintiff had failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of malice or fraud by Monsanto, as required by the California Civil Code.

At least three jurors, including Kitahata, wrote letters to Bolanos expressing concern about her tentative ruling, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “You may not have been convinced of the evidence, but we were,” Kitahata wrote.

In her decision on Monday, Bolanos said a jury could find that Monsanto’s continued marketing of Roundup, despite a link to the type of cancer suffered by Johnson, could constitute corporate malice for purposes of punitive damages.

But she said compensatory damages of $39.25 million already were substantial, and due-process precedent requires a one-to-one ratio of punitive to compensatory damages in such cases.

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