A California appeals court should reject efforts by Monsanto to overturn a jury verdict awarding millions of dollars to a school groundskeeper and approve $250 million in punitive damages the jury ordered a year ago this month in the first Roundup cancer trial, according to a brief in the case filed Monday.
The brief filed by lawyers for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson responds to arguments by Monsanto made in the appeal and cross-appeal lodged in the state appellate court. The appeal was initiated last year by Monsanto following an Aug. 10, 2018 jury decision that marked the first of three courtroom losses for the agrochemical giant and its owner Bayer AG. The jury in the Johnson case awarded $289 million in total damages, including $250 in punitive damages. The trial judge then lowered the punitive amount to $39 million for total damages of $78 million.
While Monsanto wants the entire jury decision thrown out, Johnson’s attorneys are asking for the total of $289 million to be restored by the appeals court.
Johnson is one of roughly 18,400 people suing Monsanto over allegations that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and claims that Monsanto has spent decades covering up the risks.
Both sides in the Johnson appeal are awaiting the scheduling of oral arguments, which are expected within the next couple of months. A decision by the appeals court could come before the end of the year.
The appellate decision could be pivotal. Bayer shares plummeted after the Johnson verdict and have continued to be weighed down by two more jury decisions against Monsanto in two subsequent trials. Bayer has indicated it is ready to talk about a global settlement of the Roundup cancer litigation, and a decision by the appeals court could substantially impact the direction and outcome of settlement talks.
In the brief filed Monday, Johnson’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s conduct was so “reprehensible” as to warrant much more than a “slap on the wrist,” and cited precedent court decisions finding that punitive damage awards equal to 5 percent of a defendant’s net worth is appropriate for “minimally reprehensible behavior.”
Based on Monsanto’s stipulated net worth of $6.8 billion, the punitive damage award of $250 million equals 3.8% and is “a light punishment considering Monsanto’s highly reprehensible behavior,” lawyers for Johnson stated in their brief. The punitive damage award of $250 million “is not unreasonable and it appropriately serves California’s goals of protecting public health, deterring future corporate malfeasance and punishing Monsanto,” the brief states.
The Johnson argument goes into great detail about evidence obtained through discovery, including internal Monsanto emails in which company scientists discussed ghostwriting scientific literature, Monsanto worries about how to counter building evidence of genotoxicity with its herbicides, the company’s failure to do carcinogenicity testing of its formulations, Monsanto’s cultivation of friendly officials within the Environmental Agency (EPA) for backing, and the company’s secret payments to front groups like the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to promote the safety of Monsanto’s herbicides.
Johnson’s attorneys say Monsanto’s deceptive conduct has been similar to that of the tobacco industry.
“The Serious, Deadly Injury Suffered by Johnson Supports a Finding that Monsanto’s Conduct Was Highly Reprehensible,” the Johnson brief states. Johnson’s terminal diagnosis and his very painful physical condition warrants the jury award of $289 million, his lawyers wrote.
“Johnson is suffering from extremely painful, disfiguring lesions all over his body, a consequence of the fatal NHL induced by Roundup,” the brief states. “In light of the high reprehensibility of Monsanto’s behavior, the deathly harm to Johnson, and the high net worth of Monsanto, the punitive damages award of $250 million dollars awarded by the jury comports with due process and should be upheld.”
Monsanto’s brief contradicts the Johnson position on every point and states that there is no legal reason to reinstate the $250 million punitive damage award. The company asserts that because the EPA and other international regulators back the safety of its herbicides, the courts should do the same.
“Monsanto had no duty to warn of a risk that, far from being a prevailing scientific view, worldwide regulators agree does not exist,” the Monsanto brief states. “Reinstatement of the $250 million punitive damage verdict would result in the largest judicially approved award of punitive damages in California history, in a case with exceedingly “thin” evidence of malice or oppression. There is no basis for an award of punitive damages in this case, much less the $250 million awarded by the jury.”
Johnson has additionally failed to establish that Roundup “actually caused his cancer,” according to Monsanto. “Even if Plaintiff introduced some evidence to support a failure-to-warn claim, the worldwide regulatory consensus that glyphosate is not carcinogenic establishes the utter lack of clear and convincing evidence that Monsanto acted with malice,” the company’s brief states.
“The jury’s unusually large compensatory award is just as flawed. It is based on a straightforward legal error—that a plaintiff can recover pain-and-suffering damages for decades beyond his life expectancy—that was induced by counsel’s flagrant attempts to inflame the jury.
“In short, virtually everything in this trial went wrong,” the Monsanto brief states. “Plaintiff is entitled to sympathy, but not to a verdict that ignores sound science, distorts the facts, and subverts controlling law.”