August 10, 2018

San Francisco jury awards $250 million in punitive damages against Monsanto

Law 360 reports that a jury today awarded $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages to a man who alleged he developed cancer as a result of exposure to Monsanto's  weedkillers, Roundup and Ranger Pro.

This is a hugely significant verdict.  As the article mentions, Roundup and Ranger Pro contain glyphosate, one of the most popular herbicides used around the world (over 290 million pounds were used in 2012).  The link between glyphosate and cancer was hotly disputed at trial.  Monsanto presented evidence that multiple epidemiological studies show no correlation between glyphosate and cancer, but the plaintiffs presented expert witnesses who testified that glyphosate can cause lymphoma.

Under California law, punitive damages are supposed to be awarded only when a defendant has consciously disregarded a "known" risk.  That means that punitive damages should not be imposed on a defendant for disregarding a speculative, theoretical risk.  If published peer-reviewed epidemiology  shows that a product does not cause cancer, and a defendant acts in reliance on those studies, that conduct does not meet the definition of malice under California.  But our courts have not always been consistent in applying this principles.  This case may prove to be a major indicator of the direction in which our courts are heading.