A US judge is considering whether to overturn a jury order that agribusiness giant Monsanto pays $290m in damages for not warning a groundskeeper that its weed killer product Roundup might cause cancer.
In motions filed after the historic August verdict, Monsanto urged the judge to strip away the $250m punitive portion of the damages, arguing a new trial was justified.
Rival attorneys argued before California state Judge Suzanne Bolanos, who did not say when she would rule on the motions.
Bolanos issued a written tentative ruling ahead of the hearing, saying she intended to strike down the punitive damages and schedule a new trial on that issue.
The argument appeared to resonate with Bolanos who mulled out loud about fashioning an order reducing the entire verdict to under $9m. Ultimately, Bolanos ordered lawyers to submit written arguments by Friday and said she would rule after that.
Jurors unanimously found that Monsanto acted with “malice” and that its weed killers Roundup and the professional grade version RangerPro contributed “substantially” to Dewayne Johnson’s terminal illness.
The San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto to pay $250m in punitive damages along with compensatory damages and other costs, bringing the total figure to nearly $290m.
Johnson, a California groundskeeper diagnosed in 2014 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer that affects white blood cells – says he repeatedly used a professional form of Roundup while working at a school in Benicia, California.
Monsanto lawyer George Lombardi argued in court Wednesday that the evidence presented at trial did not support the jury verdict and a lawyer for Johnson was wrong to urge jurors to teach the company a lesson.
“The message it sent to this jury was that you can look beyond what Mr Johnson’s case is about and you can go out to things that you think society would like to hear about,” Lombardi said in court.
Johnson sat nearby as his lawyers countered that jurors came to a lawful verdict based on what was presented at trial and that Bolanos should deny Monsanto’s motions.
“We have a jury that got it right and did it right,” argued one of Johnson’s attorneys, Michael Miller. “We need to respect the jury’s verdict.”
Johnson’s attorneys said the evidence at trial was “more than sufficient to support an inference that Johnson’s cancer was caused by his exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides.
“Mr Johnson’s story is tragic and could have been prevented if Monsanto actually showed a modicum of care about human safety,” they said in written arguments.