A judge in California on Monday upheld a landmark verdict in a case brought by a terminal cancer patient who successfully argued his illness resulted from his exposure to Monsanto's weedkiller RoundUp, but slashed the damages the agrochemical giant was originally required to pay from $289 million down to just $78 million and said she would order a retrial if former groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson rejects the payout.
"The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming... We are happy the jury's voice was acknowledged by the Court, even if slightly muted."
Jurors had come forward to demand that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos respect their historic verdict, issued in August. The judge had been considering a request for a retrial from Monsanto, but decided (pdf) instead to cut the punitive damages from $250 to $39 million.
A spokeswoman for Johnson, a 46-year-old father of three who is battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and his lawyers told NBC News, "Although we believe a reduction in punitive damages was unwarranted and we are weighing the options, we are pleased the court did not disturb the verdict." They have until Dec. 7 to make a decision.
While Johnson's team considers their next move, critics of Monsanto—which recently merged with the German pharmaceutical company Bayer and ditched its name—celebrated that Bolanos upheld the verdict. The Organic Consumers Association tweeted:
HUGE NEWS! A California judge is upholding the GUILTY verdict in the landmark Monsanto trial, ruling that Monsanto's #Roundup weedkiller did in fact cause Dewayne Johnson's #cancer. Take that, #Monsanto! https://t.co/ornZCRbXCF
— Organic Consumers (@OrganicConsumer) October 23, 2018
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While Monsanto maintains that its herbicides "are safe when used as directed," the state of California and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO)—have classified glyphosate, RoundUp's active ingredient, as a probable human carcinogen. Despite that designation, U.S. and European regulators still allow farmers to use the world's most common herbicide.
"The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming. And, as we saw in recent days, this jury was intelligent, diligent, and followed the letter of the law. We are happy the jury's voice was acknowledged by the Court, even if slightly muted," Johnson's team added. "We are still reviewing whether we will accept the proposed remittitur or retry the punitive damages. That said, today is a triumph for our legal system."
Bayer, meanwhile, said in a statement that the judge's ruling was "a step in the right direction, but we continue to believe that the liability verdict and damage awards are not supported by the evidence at trial or the law and plan to file an appeal with the California Court of Appeal."
No matter the ultimate outcome, Johnson's case was the first to go to trial and opened the door for other cancer patients seeking to hold Monsanto accountable. In July, even before the initial verdict, a federal judge ruled that hundreds of similar cases could proceed to trial. According to U.S. Right to Know, some 8,000 plaintiffs have alleged in state court that the company's products have made them sick.
"I hope [Monsanto] gets the message that people in America and across the world are not ignorant. They have already done their own research," Johnson told the Guardian late last month. "I'm hoping that it snowballs and people really get the picture and they start to make decisions about what they eat, what they spray in their farms."