Citing a failure to provide “clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression,” San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos issued a tentative ruling earlier this month ordering a new trial in Dewayne Johnson’s Roundup cancer lawsuit. Johnson, a school groundskeeper, won a $298 million judgement against the secretive agribusiness this summer when a jury found that his frequent exposure to Roundup caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The condition has doctors doubting whether the husband and father will live to see 2020.
Johnson’s award was split between compensatory and punitive damages. $39 million was compensatory. The remaining $250 million was punitive and it is that amount that has Judge Bolanos’ attention. During the trial, Johnson sought to show that Monsanto was intentionally hiding the dangers of glyphosate and Roundup from the public. His strategy was the first that was allowed to show the lengths that Monsanto goes to shape the public and scientific discourse around its products. After all, if there is an abundance of evidence that proves that a product is safe for human use, but most of that “evidence” comes from the company that makes the product, is it really possible to accept that evidence without independent verification?
Given the coming assault on his punitive award, attorneys have argued that Johnson’s compensatory award should be left in place. And, while sizeable on its own, the reduction or lack of any sort of punitive damages in the case would signal that while the link between Roundup and cancer is still quite real, the corporation behind the product did nothing wrong in its creation or marketing.
With hundreds of lawsuits pending against Monsanto that allege the same links between Roundup and cancer as Mr. Johnson’s, the impact of any retrial could have implications that go far beyond Johnson and his family. At the same time, a trial whose only focus is to determine whether Monsanto acted in a way that merits actual punishment in the matter could put a spotlight on its behavior that the corporation might not really want.