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California Supreme Court rejects Roundup damages appeal

Monsanto is still on the hook for nearly $87 million in damages owed to a Livermore couple who developed cancer from Roundup.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An $86.7 million damages award for a Livermore couple stricken with cancer after years of spraying Roundup weed killer will stand after the California Supreme Court refused to hear Monsanto’s appeal.

The decision effectively upholds a 2019 jury verdict that found Monsanto was aware of the risks associated with its product and negligently failed to warn consumers, and in so doing also acted with malice, oppression or fraud.

Both Alva and Alberta Pilliod were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma that they attributed to decades of using Roundup: Alva with systemic diffuse large B-Cell lymphoma in his bones in 2011; Alberta with diagnosed with an aggressive subset of that lymphoma in her brain in 2015.

In addition to $55 million in combined compensatory damages, the jury awarded each of the Pilliods $1 billion in punitive damages. During the course of the five-week trial back May 2019, Alberta testified that she never would have bought the popular herbicide if she had known that it was brought to market based on approval studies that were found to be invalid.

“It’s not clear how many times Monsanto needs to lose before it stops making frivolous appeals,” the couple’s attorney Brent Wisner said in an emailed statement. "The Pilliod verdict was based on solid science and unanimous law. They need to stop using the appeals process to deny paying this family its judgment.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith ultimately slashed the award to a total of $86.7 million, and an appellate court affirmed it in an August order where Justice Marla Miller wrote that “Monsanto’s continuing to sell Roundup after learning that the original approval studies were invalid shows conscious disregard for public health and safety."

While the Environmental Protection Agency says humans are not likely to be sickened by Roundup's active ingredient glyphosate, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015, spurring thousands of lawsuits.

Two other Bay Area residents were awarded hefty damages by separate juries. In August 2018, a jury found Monsanto owed Dewayne Lee Johnson $289 million in damages — later reduced by a judge to $78 million — after finding Roundup caused his terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and a federal jury awarded Ed Hardeman $75 million in punitive damages for failing to warn him about the product’s hazards, which a a judge cut down to $20 million. Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto for $63 billion in 2016, has since appealed the Hardeman case to U.S. Supreme Court.

“We respectfully disagree with the California Supreme Court denying review of the Pilliod decision, as the verdict in this case is not supported by the evidence at trial or the law, and we will review our legal options," a Bayer spokesman said in an emailed statement.

It recently secured a win in Los Angeles state court, where a jury found there wasn't enough evidence to prove Roundup was a substantial factor in causing the rare cancer that sickened a young boy. A federal judge in Georgia also found in Bayer's favor on a plaintiff's failure to warn claim, ruling that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act requires the company to follow instructions by the EPA not to sell Roundup with a cancer warning on its label. An appeal is pending before the Eleventh Circuit.

In June 2020, Bayer announced a $10 billion agreement to settle a bevy of claims related to Roundup users who have contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But this year, U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria refused to approve a $2 billion deal to resolve claims from Roundup users who have not developed cancer but may be diagnosed in the future.

Bayer has also vowed to remove glyphosate-based products from retail store shelves by 2023 to prevent future litigation, though the company has consistently said that it stands behind Roundup's safety.

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