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Judge upholds Monsanto verdict but cuts award to $78 million

Judge upholds Monsanto verdict but cuts award to $78 million
Bottles of Roundup herbicide, a product of Monsanto, are displayed on a store shelf in St. Louis. A Northern California judge has upheld a jury's verdict finding Monsanto's weed killer caused a groundskeeper's cancer, but slashed his $287-million award to $78 million. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

A Northern California judge on Monday upheld a jury's verdict that found Monsanto's weed killer caused a groundskeeper's cancer, but she slashed the amount of money to be paid to $78 million from $289 million.

In denying Monsanto's request for a new trial, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos cut the jury's punitive damage award to $39 million from $250 million. The judge had earlier said she had strong doubts about the jury's entire punitive damage award.

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Bolanos gave DeWayne Johnson until Dec. 7 to accept the reduced amount or demand a new trial.

Johnson's spokeswoman Diana McKinley said he and his lawyers were reviewing the decision and hadn’t decided on the next step.

“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,” she said.

Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon didn't return phone and email inquiries placed late Monday.

The jury awarded punitive damages after it found that the St. Louis-based agribusiness had purposely ignored warnings and evidence that its popular Roundup product causes cancer.

Punitive damages are designed to punish companies that juries determine have purposely misbehaved and to deter others from operating similarly.

In a tentative ruling Oct. 11, Bolanos said it appeared the jurors overreached with their punitive damages award. She said then that she was considering wiping out the $250-million judgment after finding no compelling evidence presented at trial that Monsanto employees ignored evidence that the weed killer caused cancer.

The judge reversed course Monday and said she was compelled to honor the jurors' conclusions after they listened to expert witnesses for both sides debate the merits of Johnson's claim.

The judge said jurors were entitled to accept the conclusion of Johnson's expert witness, who said Roundup caused his cancer, and reject the conclusions of Monsanto's expert witnesses, who concluded there was no proof the weed killer causes cancer.

“Thus, the jury could conclude that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk,” Bolanos wrote in her ruling.

Some jurors were so upset by the prospect of having their verdict thrown out that they wrote to Bolanos, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“I urge you to respect and honor our verdict and the six weeks of our lives that we dedicated to this trial,” juror Gary Kitahata wrote. Juror Robert Howard said that the jury paid “studious attention” to the evidence and that any decision to overturn its verdict would shake his confidence in the judicial system.

The judge did slash the $250-million punitive damage to $39 million, the same amount the jury awarded Johnson for other damages.

Johnson's lawsuit is among hundreds alleging Roundup caused cancer, but it was the first one to go to trial.

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Johnson sprayed Roundup and a similar product, Ranger Pro, at his job as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, according to his attorneys. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014 at age 42.

Many government regulators have rejected a link between the weed killer's active chemical — glyphosate — and cancer. Monsanto has vehemently denied such a connection, saying hundreds of studies have established that glyphosate is safe.

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