New trial likely in $250 million U.S. glyphosate ruling

SAN FRANCISCO/FRANKFURT (Reuters) — A fresh trial could overturn $250 million in damages against Bayer’s Monsanto unit after a jury ruled in August that the company failed to warn users of the alleged cancer risks of its herbicides.

The original verdict wiped 10 percent off the value of the company and marked the first such decision against Monsanto and its glyphosate-containing herbicides Roundup and Ranger Pro.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto this year for $63 billion, faces more than 8,000 similar lawsuits in the United States.

Last week, in San Francisco’s Superior Court of California, Judge Suzanne Bolanos gave a tentative ruling to grant the company’s motion for a new trial.

Such decisions are usually finalized after a second hearing with few major changes.

The case was brought by grounds keeper Dewayne Johnson, and the Aug. 10 verdict included an additional $39 million in compensatory damages. Johnson, whose doctors say he is likely to die within the next two years, attended the Oct. 10 hearing.

Bayer’s shares jumped as much as 6.4 percent Oct. 11, boosted by the prospect of the initial jury verdict being overturned or reduced without Bayer having to go through a more lengthy appeals process.

“The presiding Judge Bolanos may indeed be inclined to deliver some better news, with yesterday’s hearing indicating a willingness to allow a new trial altogether on the $250 million punitive damages awarded in the trial,” Barclays analysts said in a note Oct. 11.

The litigation has cast a pall over the stock, with Bayer shares still trading 16 percent below the level before the original verdict.

Bayer reiterated during the two-hour hearing in front of a packed courtroom that the original jury verdict was “wholly at odds with over 40 years of real-world use, an extensive body of scientific data and analysis, including in-depth reviews by regulatory authorities.”

In September 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded a decades-long assessment of glyphosate risks and found that the chemical was not a likely carcinogen to humans. However, in 2015 the cancer unit of the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The judge said last week that Johnson had failed to meet his burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression by Monsanto, a requirement for allowing a jury to award punitive damages.

Michael Miller, a lawyer for Johnson, told the court that the jury had reached a unanimous verdict after careful deliberations, supported by sufficient science.

“We have a jury that got it right,” he added.

Monsanto had asked Bolanos in court filings on Sept. 18 to set aside the entire verdict or, in the alternative, reduce the award or grant a new trial.

Monsanto’s lawyers said a comment made by Johnson’s lawyers during the original trial that company executives would be “popping champagne bottles” if Johnson loses were prejudicial and aimed at inciting jurors.

Johnson’s case, filed in 2016, was fast-tracked for trial because of the severity of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system.

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