Bayer’s Monsanto hit by $289 million verdict

A jury has ordered Monsanto Co. to pay $289.2 million in a landmark lawsuit over whether exposure to two of its powerful weed killers caused cancer.

The jury verdict, in San Francisco Superior Court, is the latest setback for Monsanto, now part of Bayer AG, as its flagship weed killer Roundup comes under increased scrutiny following the 2015 determination from the World Health Organization that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides, is probably carcinogenic.

On Friday, in the first of thousands of lawsuits to go to trial, the jury unanimously found that the company’s Ranger Pro and Roundup products presented a "substantial danger" to consumers, and that Monsanto knew or should have known of potential risks and failed to warn consumers like Dewayne "Lee" Johnson.

Mr. Johnson had worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay-area and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The jury awarded him $39.2 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.

Monsanto said it would appeal. Punitive damages, especially those many times higher than the compensatory awards, are often reduced by the trial judge or reversed on appeal.

"We are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family," Monsanto vice president Scott Partridge said in a statement. However, he said numerous scientific studies and health authorities in the U.S. and other countries found that glyphosate didn’t cause cancer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency originally classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic to humans in 1985 but changed its classification in 1991.

Mr. Partridge said Monsanto would "continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others."

Mr. Johnson’s lawyers had argued Monsanto knew that testing of glysophate was insufficient, and that employees "ghostwrote" favorable scientific articles and paid outside scientists to publish the articles under their names.

"We were finally able to show the jury the secret, internal Monsanto documents proving that Monsanto has known for decades that glyphosate and specifically Roundup could cause cancer," said Brent Wisner, one of Mr. Johnson’s attorneys.

The next trial against Monsanto involving Roundup, also a state case, is scheduled to begin in October in St. Louis.

Dates for lawsuits in federal courts have yet to be set.

So-called bellwether cases are selected to test arguments and gauge possible recoveries for other similarly situated plaintiffs in an attempt to reach a large-scale resolution.

Write to Maria Armental at [email protected]

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