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The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal Roundup lawsuits has determined that Monsanto should pay more than $25 million of the damages awarded in the first bellwether trial, rejecting the manufacturer’s request for a new trial. He also upheld the full amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury and a substantial portion of the original $75 million in punitive damages designed to punish Monsanto for failing to warn about the risk that their weedkiller may cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
In March 2019, a federal jury originally awarded a combined $80 million in damages to Edwin Hardeman, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma caused by Roundup. The initial verdict included more than $5 million in compensatory damages, as well as an additional award of punitive damages that were nearly 15 times that amount.
While Monsanto argued that the entire verdict should be thrown out, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria issued an order (PDF) on July 15, finding that the evidence presented at trial supported the full award compensatory damages returned by the jury, meaning that a new trial was not necessary. However, the court determined that constitutional caps on the size of punitive damages required that portion of the award to be reduced to $20 million, or roughly four times the amount of the compensatory damages.
“It is easy to uphold the award of past noneconomic damages. Mr. Hardeman presented substantial evidence of his past emotional and physical suffering, including the terror of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the uncertainty surrounding his long-term prognosis, and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. There is no basis for questioning the jury’s valuation of that suffering,” according to the order.
Judge Chhabria also found that the damages awarded for future suffering are “within the realm of rationality”, recognizing that the award included roughly $750,000 for each past year and roughly $130,00 for each future year.
“Recognizing that pain and suffering are inherently hard to quantify, the jury could reasonably conclude that Mr. Hardeman’s ongoing fear and anxiety warrants an award that, while significant, is still materially lower on an annual basis than his award for past harm,” Judge Chhabria wrote in the eight page order.
Monsanto also argued that the punitive damages awarded by the jury were not supported by the evidence, which Judge Chhabria also rejected in language that highlights the liability exposure the manufacturer may face at trial in thousands of other cases that are still awaiting trial dates.
“Based on the evidence that came in at trial, Monsanto deserves to be punished,” according to the order. “As relevant here, California law provides for an award of punitive damages where the defendant acted with malice, meaning either ‘conduct which [was] intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff’ or ‘despicable conduct which [was] carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.’ It was reasonable for the jury to put Monsanto’s behavior in the latter category, because the evidence easily supported a conclusion that Monsanto was more concerned with tamping down safety inquiries and manipulating public opinion than it was with ensuring its product is safe.”
While supporting punitive damages in the case, Judge Chhabria did determine that the size of the jury award exceeded constitutional limits under the Due Process Clause. Judge Chhabria acknowledged that Monsanto’s conduct involving the development and sale of Roundup was “reprehensible”, but indicated that it did not support a punitive damage award at the magnitude of approximately 15 times the amount of compensatory damages.
Guided by the conduct of Monsanto demonstrated at trial, Judge Chhabria found that a punitive damage award of $20 million — roughly four times the amount of compensatory damages — is the maximum award that is constitutionally permissible in this case.
The decision substantially increases the pressure on Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, to negotiate Roundup settlements to resolve more than 15,000 cases pending nationwide, as nearly identical evidence will be presented in each case, and the company could face devastating punitive damage awards in a large number of additional cases if the litigation is not resolved.
In addition to Hardeman’s trial, two other Roundup cases have gone to trial in California state court, each also resulting in massive compensatory and punitive damage awards for the plaintiffs. The repeated losses at trial have been viewed as compelling evidence about how other juries are likely to respond to similar evidence that is likely to be repeated throughout each of the cases.
Last summer, the first Roundup trial resulted in a $289 million jury verdict for a former school groundskeeper diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Under California law, the damages in that Roundup case were subsequently reduced to $78 million, which both Monsanto and the plaintiffs are each appealing.
Following the Hardeman verdict in March 2019, a third trial ended in May with a landmark $2 billion verdict in California state court, involving compensatory and punitive damages awarded to a husband and wife who were each diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma following use of Roundup.
Judge Chhabria has previously suggested that if the litigation is not resolved, large numbers of individual cases will be remanded back to U.S. District Courts for individual trial dates next year.
To facilitate potential settlement of the cases and help guide the parties toward fair offers for damages in each Roundup case, Judge Chhabria has ordered the parties to participate in a mediation process with prominent attorney Ken Feinberg, who has been involved in some of the largest settlements in high-profile litigation in recent years, including funds to pay claims related to the BP oil spill, Volkswagen emissions scandal, General Motors ignition switch recall, September 11th Victim Compensation fund and others.
The next federal bellwether trial before Judge Chhabria is scheduled to begin in February 2020, with additional state court cases expected to go before juries in Missouri later this year.