Monsanto has recently been on the wrong end of several major jury verdicts in lawsuits relating to its product Roundup. Plaintiffs have filed suit against the company, alleging that the weed killer was responsible for cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Last year, a terminally ill California man was awarded $ 289 million by a California jury. This was followed by other large verdicts, as juries have reacted viscerally to evidence of Monsanto’s corporate behavior. Now, the company faces many other lawsuits while simultaneously appealing the jury verdicts with which it was already hit.
Roundup has been used as a pesticide for many years, starting with its introduction in 1974. The product was viewed to be a safer alternative to the pesticide DDT. However, there were reports starting in the early part of this century that the product could cause cancer. By 2015, the World Health Organization concluded that glyphosate-based products were “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Nonetheless, the EPA continues to cling to the belief that glyphosate is entirely safe and will not take steps to regulate sales of the product. The regulatory agency will not entertain the mounting evidence to the contrary in reevaluating its opinion.
The first lawsuits began to go in front of juries within the past couple of years. The watershed case was heard in California. The plaintiff was a man named Dewayne Johnson who was terminally ill with cancer. Johnson was a groundskeeper for the school district and had used Roundup for years. Now he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Of particular interest to the jury was Monsanto’s record of corporate behavior. Rather than objectively assess whether its product was safe, the company attempted to place a finger on the scale by influencing the scientific debate over the possible danger associated with Roundup.
Monsanto hired scientists to affix their names to research reports that the company itself wrote, claiming that there was no danger to using Roundup. In addition, Johnson had previously contacted Monsanto asking about skin irritation that he was experiencing that he believed resulted from the use of Roundup. However, the company ignored his email, and he continued to use the product, likely exacerbating the side effects.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Johnson over $289 million as compensation for his injuries. Much of the verdict was in the form of punitive damages against Monsanto for its egregious corporate misconduct. For Monsanto, this verdict, while not necessarily an existential threat to the company, represented a potential long-term drag on its share price. Accordingly, the company appealed the verdict. Many large jury verdicts are either overturned by the trial judge or reduced. Here, the trial judge reduced the verdict to approximately $79 million. Both sides are appealing; Johnson to reinstate the verdict and Monsanto to overturn it entirely.
The Johnson verdict was just the first blow taken by Monsanto in California courts. The corporate misconduct has been an issue in every single trial. In one court proceeding, the judge did not allow the evidence of corporate malfeasance to be introduced until the damages phase of the trial. Other judges have allowed this evidence in before the damages phase.
Recently, Monsanto was assessed an even higher amount of damages in another trial in California. A married couple both developed lymphoma after years of Roundup usage. An Oakland jury awarded them $2 billion, which largely consisted of punitive damages against the company. Again, the internal company emails and communications played a prominent role in the jury’s verdict.
Monsanto also appealed this verdict. On appeal, the trial judge reduced the damages to approximately $87 million. While markedly smaller than the original award, this is still a substantial award for the plaintiffs. Monsanto indicated that it will continue to appeal this reduced verdict. What was notable about the court order was that the judge agreed with the fact that Roundup is a carcinogen and Monsanto had the obligation to warn users, but failed to do so. While this is not binding on future courts, it is an acknowledgement of how these lawsuits have been received by judges and juries.
Now, Monsanto is facing numerous other Roundup lawsuits having lost the first cases that have gone in front of juries. While the first cases have been in California, which is known for juries receptive to plaintiffs, there are now cases scheduled in St. Louis County, which has a similar reputation to California. Monsanto has attempted to postpone trials so it can focus its efforts on appealing the initial verdicts given the financial stakes for the company. Currently, the Johnson verdict is on appeal to the Court of Appeal in California.
In the appeal, Monsanto is focusing on the fact that prevailing scientific evidence has found Roundup to be safe, notwithstanding the fact that much of that science has been influenced by the company. The company has claimed that EPA documents that purportedly attest to the safety of the product should have been admitted in the jury trial. Shares of Monsanto’s parent company Bayer have been hitting fresh lows because of the legal risk resulting from Roundup.