Even as Bayer AG got a jury verdict slashed to $25.3 million from $80.3 million in a California case alleging exposure to its Roundup weed killer causes cancer, the judge who made the cut found the company’s behavior “reprehensible.”
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco ruled Monday that the $75 million portion of the March verdict intended to punish the company was too high based on a legal precedent that punitive damages shouldn’t be more than four times bigger than compensatory damages. Chhabria reduced the punitive damages to $20 million — the maximum allowed under guidance supplied by the U.S. Supreme Court — while emphasizing that the jury’s decision to award such damages was “reasonable.”
“The evidence presented at trial showed that Monsanto’s approach to the safety of its product was indeed reprehensible,” Chhabria wrote. “While Monsanto repeatedly intones that it stands by the safety of its product, the evidence at trial painted the picture of a company focused on attacking or undermining the people who raised concerns, to the exclusion of being an objective arbiter of Roundup’s safety.”
The German company has vowed to keep defending its popular weed killer after losing three trials in California since last summer, when it acquired Monsanto Co., which started making Roundup in the 1970s.
Of the three cases, Chhabria created by far the most rigorous path for the plaintiffs to get to trial — and they won. Because it’s the first case of hundreds collected from federal courts across the U.S. to go to trial, many of his rulings will serve as a bellwether for those suits. In May, Chhabria appointed mediator Ken Feinberg to try to work out a settlement.
Bayer disagreed with Chhabria’s ruling Friday denying the company a new trial. While the reduction of punitive damages “is a step in the right direction,” the verdict and damages “are not supported by the reliable evidence presented at trial,” the company said in an emailed statement, adding that it plans to appeal.
The case was brought by Edwin Hardeman, who used the herbicide on his large plot of land in Sonoma County, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of San Francisco. As with many of the other 13,400 consumers suing Bayer, Hardeman alleged that his years of exposure caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bayer is scheduled for a fourth trial this summer in St. Louis, where Monsanto was based.
Jennifer Moore, Hardeman’s lawyer, called Chhabria’s refusal to throw out the verdict a “major victory” for all individuals injured as a result of using Roundup.
“For decades Monsanto has lied about the safety of Roundup and undermined any effort to inform the public that Roundup causes cancer,” Moore said in an emailed statement. “We disagree with any reduction of the jury’s verdict.”
The case is In re: Roundup Products Liability Litigation, MDL 2741, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
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