Bayer gets new trial on punitive damages in US$289 million weed-killer case

The logo of German chemicals giant Bayer is seen on flags in Leverkusen. (AFP pic)

SAN FRANCISCO: Bayer AG’s Monsanto unit received a tentative ruling for a new trial on the US$250 million (RM1 billion) in punitive damages awarded by a jury to a groundskeeper who alleged the company’s glyphosate-based weed killers, including Roundup, caused his cancer.

According to a Wednesday court filing in San Francisco’s Superior Court of California, Judge Suzanne Bolanos was considering whether to grant the company’s motion for a new trial on the punitive damages.

The judge’s ruling, granting a new trial on the punitive damages, is tentative and was being discussed at a court hearing underway on Wednesday.

The Aug 10 award to Dewayne Johnson included US$39 million in compensatory damages.

The combined US$289 million verdict marked the first decision finding that Monsanto had failed to warn consumers of the alleged cancer risks posed by glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weed-killer.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto earlier this year for US$63 billion, faces more than 8,000 similar lawsuits in the United States.

The German company has denied the allegation and has said that decades of real-world application and scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use.

Investors have raised concerns over the litigation risk, with Bayer shares falling sharply after the decision and still trading some 20% below their pre-verdict level at US$86.57 on Wednesday.

In September 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded a decades-long assessment of glyphosate risks and found that the chemical was not a likely carcinogen to humans.

However, in 2015 the cancer unit of the World Health Organisation classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

On Wednesday, the judge said that Johnson had failed to meet his burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression by Monsanto, a requirement for allowing a jury to award punitive damages.

Monsanto had asked Bolanos in court filings on Sept. 18 to set aside the entire verdict or, in the alternative, reduce the award or grant a new trial.

The judge’s order said the company’s request for an entire new trial that includes liability grounds would also be discussed during Wednesday’s court hearing.

Bayer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lawyers for Johnson said they would only comment after Wednesday’s court hearing concludes.

Johnson’s case, filed in 2016, was fast-tracked for trial due to the severity of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, that he alleged was caused by years of exposure to Roundup and Ranger Pro, another Monsanto herbicide that contains glyphosate.