by Carey Gillam
The school groundskeeper who won the first-ever trial over allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup causes cancer is asking the California Supreme Court to restore $250 million in punitive damages awarded by the jury who heard his case but then slashed by an appeals court to $20.5 million.
Notably, the appeal by plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson has larger implications than his own individual case. Johnson’s lawyer are urging the court to address a legal twist that can leave people such as Johnson who are facing death in the near term with lower damage awards than others expected to live many years in suffering and pain.
“It is long past time for California courts to recognize, as other courts do, that life itself has value and that those who maliciously deprive a plaintiff of years of life should be made to fully compensate that plaintiff and be punished accordingly,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote in their request for the state supreme court review. “The jury ascribed meaningful value to Mr. Johnson’s life, and for that he is grateful. He asks this Court to respect the jury’s decision and restore that value. ”
A unanimous jury found in August 2018 that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, known best by the brand name Roundup, caused Johnson to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The jury further found that Monsanto acted to hide the risks of its products in conduct so egregious that the company should pay Johnson $250 million in punitive damages on top of $39 million in past and future compensatory damages.
Upon appeal from Monsanto, which was purchased by the German company Bayer AG in 2018, the trial judge reduced the $289 million to $78 million. Monsanto appealed seeking either a new trial or a reduced award. Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of his full damage award.
The appeals court in the case then cut the award to $20.5 million, citing the fact that Johnson was expected to live only a short time.
The appeals court reduced the damages award despite finding there was “abundant” evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused Johnson’s cancer and that “there was overwhelming evidence that Johnson has suffered, and will continue to suffer for the rest of his life, significant pain and suffering.”
The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on Monsanto’s efforts to manipulate the scientific record on glyphosate and Roundup and its efforts to quiet critics and influence regulators. Lawyers for Johnson presented jurors with internal company emails and other records showing Monsanto scientists discussing ghostwriting scientific papers to try to shore up support for the safety of the company’s products, along with communications detailing plans to discredit critics, and to quash a government evaluation of the toxicity of glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto’s products.
Johnson’s trial victory spurred a frenzied filing of tens of thousands of additional lawsuits. Monsanto lost three out of three trials before agreeing this June to pay more than $10 billion to settle close to 100,000 such claims.
The settlement is still in flux, however, as Bayer wrestles with how to forestall future litigation.
In an interview, Johnson said he knew the legal battle with Monsanto could continue for many more years but he was committed to trying to hold the company accountable. He has managed to keep his illness in check so far with regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but is not certain how long that will continue.
“I don’t think any amount would be enough to punish that company,” Johnson said.