SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Agrochemical company Monsanto “deserves to be punished” for misleading the public about the safety of its popular Roundup weed killer, a federal judge said in a ruling Monday, but drastically cut punitive damages awarded to a San Francisco Bay Area man with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Based on the evidence that came in at trial, Monsanto deserves to be punished,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote, adding it was clear the company was more concerned with “tamping down safety inquiries and manipulating public opinion than it was with ensuring its product is safe.”
But the judge found the jury’s original punitive damages award unconstitutionally excessive and slashed the award from $75 million to $20 million. The $75 million was 15 times the amount the jury awarded in compensatory damages.
“Monsanto’s conduct, while reprehensible, does not warrant a ratio of that magnitude, particularly in the absence of evidence showing intentional concealment of a known or obvious safety risk,” Chhabria said.
In March, a six-person jury found Monsanto failed to warn 70-year-old Ed Hardeman that Roundup is carcinogenic, and that the company acted maliciously by continuing to sell the product without a warning label.
Hardeman’s case is one of hundreds of lawsuits filed after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup, a probable carcinogen in 2015.
In his 8-page order Monday, Chhabria said internal company emails presented at trial betrayed Monsanto’s lack of concern that Roundup might be carcinogenic.
But although the emails also showed Monsanto executives were on friendly terms with some officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which approves Roundup for sale in the United States, Hardeman did not demonstrate that Monsanto hid evidence from regulators, Chhabria said.
“While Mr. Hardeman presented evidence that Monsanto had a cozy relationship with particular EPA employees, he did not present any evidence that would reasonably support an inference that this relationship rendered invalid the EPA’s approval process for Roundup,” Chhabria wrote. “Nor did Mr. Hardeman present any evidence that Monsanto was in fact aware that glyphosate caused cancer but concealed it, thus distinguishing this case from the many cases adjudicating the conduct of the tobacco companies.”
Chhabria also noted that while the jury concluded Roundup more likely than not caused Hardeman’s lymphoma, “the metaphorical jury is still out on whether glyphosate causes NHL,” he wrote, using the acronym for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
He said Monsanto’s culpability is diminished to some extent by the EPA and other European regulators’ continued approval of glyphosate.
Monsanto wants the entire verdict thrown out, though Chhabria refused to do so in a separate order Friday.
Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2016 for $66 billion, vowed to take the fight to the Ninth Circuit.
“The court’s decision to reduce the punitive damage award is a step in the right direction, as constitutional limitations and controlling precedent dictate that excessive damage awards like those in this case be reduced,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Still, the liability verdict and damage awards are not supported by the reliable evidence presented at trial, and conflict with both the weight of the extensive science that supports the safety of Roundup, and the conclusions of leading health regulators in the U.S. and around the world that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”
Chhabria also declined to reduce Hardeman’s $5 million compensatory damages award, despite indicating at a hearing this month he was unable to reconcile awarding Hardeman almost as much money for future pain and suffering as past.
But on Monday, Chhabria said he considered that $2 million in future noneconomic damages will stretch out over the next 15 years of Hardeman’s life, a point raised by counsel at the hearing.
In a phone interview, Hardeman’s attorney Jennifer Moore said she is pleased Chhabria denied Monsanto’s request to vacate the jury’s verdict and declined to touch Hardeman’s compensatory damages.
“He clearly went back and weighed that. We are glad the judge agreed with the jury that the compensatory damages were appropriate for Mr. Hardeman,” Moore said.
But she added, “We still maintain that a $75 million punitive damages verdict is appropriate in a case where Monsanto has lied to the American public for decades regarding whether Roundup causes cancer.”
Regarding Bayer’s appeal, Moore said: “It is past time for Monsanto to do the right thing and acknowledge that Roundup causes cancer and stop putting Mr. Hardeman through all of these unnecessary hoops. Further delay is not doing anyone any good – certainly not Mr. Hardeman – and he deserves to have resolution over what has been a very trying process.”