The California Supreme Court denied Monsanto’s appeal Wednesday of a San Francisco jury’s groundbreaking verdict that found the company’s widely used herbicide caused a school groundskeeper’s cancer and that the company disregarded public safety in marketing its product.
The court also denied review of the groundskeeper’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that reduced his damages from $78.5 million to $21.5 million.
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson’s case was the first in the nation to go to trial among thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto by cancer victims who had used its Roundup herbicide or a more concentrated version of the product called Ranger Pro. Glyphosate, the active ingredient, is the world’s most widely used herbicide.
The International Association for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, concluded in 2015 that glyphosate is a probable cause of cancer in humans, a finding later endorsed by California health officials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and agencies in many other countries have found it to be safe, however, and no warning labels are required for U.S. products.
At the time of the trial in 2018, Johnson, 46, was severely ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with lesions covering his body, and his doctors said he had two years to live. He is still alive.
Two subsequent Bay Area trials ended in damage awards of $25.2 million to Edwin Hardeman, who sprayed Roundup on his property in Sonoma County for more than 26 years, and $86.2 million to Alva and Alberta Pilliod, a Livermore couple who sprayed the herbicide on three of their properties for more than 30 years. Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer AG, have appealed the verdicts.
With other trials pending nationwide, Bayer, which acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018, is attempting to settle the remaining cases with payments that would allow the company to maintain its position that glyphosate does not cause cancer.
Bayer announced a settlement in June that would pay nearly $10 billion to as many as 125,000 claimants. The company has proposed a separate $1 billion-plus settlement for potential future plaintiffs, which would depend on the findings of a yet-unnamed scientific panel on the herbicide’s safety. But the settlements are not yet final and have been questioned by some plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Johnson, of Vallejo, was a groundskeeper and pest-control manager for the Benicia Unified School District from 2012 until May 2016. His job included spraying Monsanto’s Ranger Pro from 50-gallon drums 20 to 30 times a year for two to three hours a day.
He testified he wore protective clothing, including a sturdy jacket, goggles and a face mask, but said he couldn’t fully protect his face from wind-blown spray. And twice, he told the jury, he got drenched with the herbicide, once when a spray hose became detached from a truck that was hauling it, and another time when a backpack container he was carrying leaked.
After his symptoms appeared, he said he twice called Monsanto to ask if the product was dangerous, and was promised a return call but never got one. He was diagnosed with cancer in October 2014 but continued using the herbicide until January 2016, four months before leaving his job.
The company argued that the herbicide was safe and cited its approval by the EPA and other nations’ health agencies. Johnson’s lawyers said Monsanto had unduly influenced the EPA’s conclusions and had “ghost-written” some purportedly independent studies.
The jury found that Monsanto had caused Johnson’s cancer, should have known that its product was carcinogenic, and “acted with malice or oppression” by failing to notify Johnson’s employer.
Jurors awarded Johnson $39.25 million for economic losses and for past and future pain and suffering and $250 million in punitive damages. Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos reduced the punitive award to $39.25 million, citing U.S. Supreme Court limits on such damages, but refused to overturn the verdict.
The state’s First District Court of Appeal upheld the verdict against Monsanto in July but lowered Johnson’s damages to $21.5 million. Jurors had awarded Johnson $33 million for the lost years of his life — $1 million for each year of his normal life expectancy — but the appellate panel said California law does not authorize such damages, and reduced that sum to $4 million for two years of pain and suffering.
Monsanto and Bayer appealed the jury’s findings of fault. Johnson appealed the reduction in damages. The state Supreme Court denied both appeals Wednesday, without comment or any published dissents.
The case is Johnson vs. Monsanto, S264158.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BobEgelko