Will California judge trim $250 million punitive damage award in Monsanto Roundup verdict?

By Glenn Minnis | Oct 15, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO - A superior court judge has granted agribusiness giant Monsanto a judgment notwithstanding verdict (JNOV) in its dogged pursuit to overturn a $289 million landmark verdict against the company over its production of popular weed-killer Roundup.

CNN reports Judge Suzanne Bolanos has now ordered attorneys for Monsanto and plaintiff Dewayne Johnson to submit new responses by Oct. 19 in anticipation of her overturning the initial jury verdict that included an award of $250 million in punitive damages and perhaps going as far as to order a new trial.   

In legal parlance, a JNOV denotes a judge’s decision to reconsider a jury’s verdict for the purposes of rendering a different legal outcome. At the very least, Bolanos is reported to be weighing if the court should reduce a significant portion of the award granted to Johnson based on a lack of scientific evidence.

WOTC reported the judge signaled such action during a nearly two-hour hearing where she expressed growing frustration with the $33 million in "non-economic" pain-and-suffering damages he was awarded by the jury.

At trial in August, lawyers for Johnson argued that he should be awarded $1 million a year for the next 33 years, prompting attorneys for Monsanto to point out to Bolanos the 46-year-old father of two, who now suffers from lesions to over 80 percent of his body, has actually been given less than two-years to live.  

Later in the written portion of her ruling, Bolanos opined even if she denies Monsanto's request to drop the $250 million part of the verdict, "the Court would grant a new trial on the grounds of insufficiency of the evidence to justify the award for punitive damages."

Monsanto parent company Bayer, which recently acquired the St. Louis-based company, said it was pleased with the judge's tentative ruling.

"The jury's verdict was wholly at odds with over 40 years of real-world use, an extensive body of scientific data and analysis, including in-depth reviews by regulatory authorities in the U.S. and EU, and approvals in 160 countries, which support the conclusion that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic," the company said in a statement.

A school groundskeeper, Johnson’s case against Monsanto was heard earlier this year after he alleged using Roundup while doing his job led to his deadly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, triggering the filing of more than 4,000 similar cases against the industry-leading company.

During the proceedings, Johnson’s attorneys told the court Monsanto’s negligence amounted to a death sentence for their client, who testified he used Roundup up to 30 times a year in performing his duties, at times spraying from quantities as large as a 50-gallon tank attached to a truck.

Johnson also told the court over time he had two accidents where he accidentally doused himself with the chemical product, one of them going as far back as 2012. Now described by his attorneys as being on “borrowed time,” Johnson added he was officially diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014.

At trial, jurors deliberated for less than three days before returning with a verdict finding that Monsanto failed to provide adequate warning about the risks associated with it products, a decision that the defense instantly and demonstratively moved to counter.

Part of that strategy included fingering Brent Wisner, Johnson’s lead attorney from the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman, for prejudicing the jury pool by comparing Monsanto to tobacco and imploring those on the court panel to “change the world” in rendering their final verdict. 

“The message sent to the jury was, ‘you can look beyond this courtroom,'” Courthouse News reports Monsanto attorney George Lombardi, with the law firm of Winston & Strawn, told Bolanos. “His choice of the tobacco industry was intentional and purposeful, and fit right in with the message that you should change the world, you should change history.”

Ultimately, attorneys for Johnson countered the court’s verdict should be solely based on Monsanto’s neglect in testing Roundup for carcinogenicity, and the decision of top executives to cover up the presence of it once they became wholly aware it.

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