A US judge has moved to grant the chemical giant Monsanto, owned by Germany’s Bayer AG, a new trial on punitive damages of $289m awarded to a man who claimed its herbicide had given him terminal cancer.
Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper, had earlier won a huge victory in the case, with the jury determining that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller caused his cancer and that the corporation failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure.
The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression”.
Monsanto had denied it was responsible and has continued to argue that it is safe to use glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide. Glyphosate-based products, including the Roundup and Ranger Pro brands, are now worth billions of dollars in revenues, approved for use on more than 100 crops, and registered in 130 countries.
Judge Suzanne Bolanos cited the “insufficiency of the evidence to justify the award for punitive damages” in her tentative ruling. A hearing on the matter was scheduled Wednesday afternoon.
Timothy Litzenburg, one of Johnson’s attorneys, told the Guardian the judge’s decision was “terrible news for [Johnson] and his family, but we’ll definitely put on a new trial if we need to”. He added that the original ruling would still have a long-term impact: “There’s been a loud and clear message.”
The initial verdict in favor of Johnson, who goes by the name Lee, was a historic moment in the longstanding fight against Roundup, which studies have shown is linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a type of blood cancer. Notably, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer ruled to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Johnson’s attorneys have also presented internal Monsanto emails that they say demonstrated the corporation’s repeated efforts over the years to stifle critical research and to quietly help produce scientific reports that were favorable to glyphosate.
Those claims were bolstered last month when the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology recently issued an “expression of concern”, saying that research it had published finding glyphosate to be safe had not fully declared Monsanto’s involvement.
Monsanto argued in court that independent research over the years has demonstrated the safety of its products.
Critics of Monsanto and Bayer have also pushed for a label that would warn consumers of the cancer risks. More than 8,000 plaintiffs across the country have brought similar claims against the company echoing Johnson’s complaint. A number of trials are scheduled to start next year.
“I think we are going to win a lot more than we lose. There will always be appeals until Bayer is ready to settle the whole liability,” said Litzenburg, adding, “There are a lot of people out there suffering from this horrible disease that might’ve been avoided with a tiny label.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian last month, Johnson, a father of three with terminal cancer, said he planned to continue speaking up about the health risks of Roundup and advocate for new restrictions.
“They have been hiding for years and getting away with it,” he said. “They have to pay the price for not being honest and putting people’s health at risk for the sake of making a profit.”
Johnson is not expected to live more than two years, and doctors have previously said he might only have months left.