By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday slashed a damages award Bayer AG owed a California man who blamed Roundup weed killer for his cancer, to $25.27 million from $80.27 million, while rejecting the company’s bid for a new trial.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco said evidence against the former Monsanto Co, which Bayer bought last year, supported the $5.27 million in compensatory damages that a jury awarded Edwin Hardeman. He also said the jury acted reasonably in awarding punitive damages.
Chhabria nonetheless reduced punitive damages to $20 million from $75 million, saying that while Monsanto “deserves to be punished” the higher award was “constitutionally impermissible” because it was nearly 15 times the compensatory damages award.
“Monsanto’s conduct, while reprehensible, does not warrant a ratio of that magnitude, particularly in the absence of evidence showing intentional concealment of a known or obvious safety risk,” Chhabria wrote.
Hardeman said he used Roundup for many years starting in the 1980s to treat poison oak and weeds on his property.
He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014, but is now in remission.
Hardeman is one of more than 13,400 plaintiffs who have sued Bayer and Monsanto over Roundup, saying the herbicide’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is unsafe. His case was considered a bellwether for hundreds of similar cases before Chhabria.
In a statement, Bayer called Chhabria’s decision “a step in the right direction,” but said it still plans to appeal.
Bayer said the verdict and damages award “conflict with both the weight of the extensive science that supports the safety of Roundup, and the conclusions of leading health regulators in the U.S. and around the world that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”
Hardeman may appeal Chhabria’s decision to reduce the damages award, which one of his lawyers, Michael Baum, in a statement called a “reversible error.”
U.S. Supreme Court precedents limit the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages to 9 to 1.
“We are pleased that the judge denied Monsanto’s motion to throw out the verdict, and recognized that Monsanto deserved to be punished,” Jennifer Moore, a lawyer for Hardeman, said in an interview. “We disagree with any reduction in the jury verdict.”
Bayer paid $63 billion for Monsanto.
The case is In re Roundup Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 16-md-02741. The Hardeman case is Hardeman v Monsanto Co in the same court, No. 16-00525.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Tina Bellon; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Sonya Hepinstall and Dan Grebler)