Couple win billions in damages over weed killer cancer claims

A jury has ordered agribusiness giant Monsanto Co to pay a combined $2.055 billion (£1.59bn) to a couple claiming the company’s popular weed killer Roundup Ready caused their cancers.

The Pilliods, of Livermore, Calif., claimed Monsanto's popular weed killer Roundup Ready caused the cancer each are fighting. Monsanto says it will appeal each verdict. (AP Photo/Paul Elias)

The jury’s verdict is the third such courtroom loss for Monsanto in California since August, but a San Francisco law professor said it was likely a trial judge or appellate court would significantly reduce the punitive damage award.

The state court jury in Oakland concluded that Monsanto’s weed killer caused the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma Alva Pilliod and Alberta Pilliod each contracted. Jurors awarded them each $1bn in punitive damages in addition to a combined $55 million in compensatory damages.

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Alberta Pilliod, 76, said after the verdict that she and her husband Alva have each been battling cancer for the past nine years. She says they are unable to enjoy the same activities they participated in before their cancer diagnosis.

“It changed our lives forever,” she said. “We couldn’t do things we used to be able to do and we really resent them for that.”

One of the Pilliods lawyers, Michael Miller, conceded the $2bn punitive damage award was likely to be reduced on appeal, but said they were prepared for a long legal battle.

A federal jury in San Francisco ordered the weed killer maker in March to pay a Sonoma County man $80m.

A San Francisco jury in August awarded $289m to a former golf course greens keeper who blamed his cancer on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide. A judge later reduced the award by $200m.

The three California trials were the first of an estimated 13,000 plaintiffs with pending lawsuits against Monsanto across the country to go to trial.

St Louis-based Monsanto is owned by the German chemical giant Bayer A.G.

Bayer said on Monday it would appeal the verdict.

“The verdict in this trial has no impact on future cases and trials as each one has its own factual and legal circumstances,” the company said.

The company noted none of the California verdicts had been considered by an appeals court and the US Environmental Protection Agency considers the weed killer safe. The EPA reaffirmed its position in April, saying the active ingredient glyphosate found in the weed killer posed “no risks of concern” for people exposed to it by any means – on farms, in yards and along roadsides, or as residue left on food crops.

“There is zero chance it will stand,” said University of California Hastings School of Law professor David Levine. He said the ratio between the $2bn in punitive damages and $55m in compensatory damages was too high. He said judges rarely allowed punitive damages to exceed four times the actual damages awarded.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that any punitive damages exceeding ten times the compensatory damages are likely unconstitutionally high.

The court didn’t propose a ratio it felt correct, but said punitive damages should almost never exceed nine times actual damages.

The punitive damages awarded on Monday are 36 times the actual damages.

The lawsuits have battered Bayer’s stock since it purchased Monsanto for $63bn last year and Bayer’s top managers are facing shareholder discontent.

Chairman Werner Wenning told shareholders at Bayer’s annual general meeting in Bonn last month that company leaders “very much regret” falls in its share price.w