The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge cuts $2 billion award for couple with cancer to $86.7 million in Roundup lawsuit

Bayer categorically denies that Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, cause cancer and maintains that both are safe for human use. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

A judge slashed more than 95 percent off the $2 billion awarded to a California couple who developed cancer after using Roundup weedkiller.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith on Thursday cut the couple’s damages to $86.7 million on the basis that the judgment handed down by an Oakland jury in May had vastly exceeded legal precedent. It is the third time in less than a year that Bayer AG has had a jury award significantly reduced in a lawsuit alleging the world’s most widely used herbicide causes cancer. The German pharmaceutical and life sciences giant is appealing, or plans to appeal, all verdicts.

When Bayer acquired Monsanto in June 2018 for $63 billion to create the world’s biggest seed and agrochemical company, it inherited a mountain of legal trouble tied to Roundup: More than 13,000 lawsuits have been filed in the United States, and the numbers are climbing.

Bayer categorically denies that Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, cause cancer and maintains that both are safe for human use. Since acquiring Monsanto, Bayer’s value has fallen approximately 45 percent.

“We continue to believe that the verdict and damage awards are not supported by the evidence at trial and conflict with the extensive body of reliable science and conclusions of leading health regulators worldwide that confirms glyphosate-based herbicides can be used safely and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” Bayer said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Although the judge substantially cut the damages, she supported the jury’s finding that Monsanto was to blame for Alva and Alberta Pilliod’s cancer and that the company repeatedly tried to bury evidence about Roundup’s health risks at the expense of consumer safety.

“In this case there was clear and convincing evidence that Monsanto made efforts to impede, discourage, or distort scientific inquiry and the resulting science,” Smith wrote in the order.

The couple still has to formally accept the reduced award. If they don’t, the case would go to retrial.

The Pilliods, who are in their mid-70s, had been using Roundup for decades by the time Alva was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his bones in 2011. Four years later, Alberta was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the brain. The couple estimated that they went through a gallon of Roundup per week over 30 years to fend off weeds on four residential properties. They did not use protective clothing or face masks. Both are currently in remission.

The Pilliod verdict followed an $80 million judgment in March to a California man who said Roundup caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Last August, in the first Roundup trial in the United States, a California jury awarded $289 million to a former groundskeeper who blamed the herbicide for his terminal cancer. A judge later reduced that amount to $78 million, and the verdict is being appealed.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in April that it continues to find “no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label” and that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”

The agency acknowledged the ecological risks associated with glyphosate and proposed measures aimed at helping farmers better target its application, though it said its findings on the human health risks of the compound “are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by many other countries and other federal agencies.”

“If we are going to feed 10 billion people by 2050, we are going to need all the tools at our disposal, which includes the use [of] glyphosate,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement on the EPA’s decision. The Agriculture Department “applauds EPA’s proposed registration decision as it is science-based and consistent with the findings of other regulatory authorities that glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”

The EPA’s finding clashes with guidance from other leading organizations and existing research. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And earlier this year, researchers at the University of Washington who analyzed all published studies on the effects of glyphosate on humans concluded that the overall risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in people exposed to Roundup increased by 41 percent.

Roundup is embroiled in cancer cases. Now its maker is putting $5.6 billion toward a new kind of weedkiller.

Last month, Bayer announced it was investing more than $5.6 billion in weedkiller research and efforts to reduce its environmental footprint. But glyphosate “will continue to play an important role in agriculture and in Bayer’s portfolio,” the company said.

Even if it addresses the onslaught of Roundup lawsuits, Bayer faces more litigation tied to Monsanto. A rash of U.S. states and cities have filed lawsuits claiming that the company polluted dozens of bodies of water decades ago with its use of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Monsanto stopped producing the highly toxic and fire-resistant compound in 1977, and it was banned in the United States two years later, after it was linked to cancer and immune-system issues. Monsanto has spent more than $1 billion to resolve PCB claims.