Can You Get Punitive Damages in a California Round-Up Case?

For the last few years, Round-Up litigation has been a hot legal topic. Ever since it was reported in 2015 that a major ingredient in the weed killer may be cancer causing, plaintiffs and personal injury lawyers have been banging on courthouse doors to file their lawsuits.

Glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s product Round-Up, was identified as a probable carcinogen in a report released by the World Health Organization in 2015. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that Monsanto, the company who makes Roundup, was aware that this was the case.

Despite warning consumers that their product may be dangerous, it appears that Monsanto chose to keep their mouths shut. This is the case in many product liability cases. When you’re dealing with toxic torts such as we’re seeing with the Roundup cases, you have a heavy burden to prove.

Basic Elements of a Mass Tort Case in Los Angeles

Toxic tort cases fall under personal injury. Although these cases can be pretty complicated, the bottom line is the same – you have to prove that the defendant caused your injuries. When dealing with a case like the Monsanto Roundup cases, you have to prove a few basic things:

  • You were injured
  • Your injuries were caused by the defendant’s actions
  • The defendant’s actions were negligent or unreasonable

In a toxic tort or product liability case, these matters are complicated. This is because a lot of the evidence comes down to scientific proof. How do you prove causation in cases like this?

Let’s consider your average Monsanto Roundup case. The plaintiffs involved are claiming that Roundup caused their cancer. Now, if we look at this from a common-sense standpoint, it seems simple.

  • The plaintiff has cancer
  • Something had to cause their cancer
  • The defendant’s product arguably contains cancer-causing agents
  • The plaintiff used the defendant’s product for a long period of time
  • The defendant didn’t warn the plaintiff that their product was dangerous
  • The defendant knew (or should have known) that their product was dangerous
  • There’s no other obvious cause for the plaintiff’s cancer

All of this makes perfect sense on paper, right? But, what happens when you actually get into the courtroom?

Proving Causation in Round-Up Cases is Difficult

Even if you can prove that Monsanto’s product contains a cancer-causing agent, that doesn’t automatically prove that their product caused your client’s cancer. Does it?

Just because your client got sick, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their cancer was caused by using Round-Up. There are tons of other things that could’ve caused or contributed to causing their cancer. Some of these things include:

  • They were a smoker
  • They worked in a field that was rampant with toxins
  • Also, they lived in a house with asbestos in it
  • They have a family history of cancer
  • They were exposed to other harmful chemicals over their lifetime

The defendant is going to insist that one of these other things caused your client’s cancer. And, it may not be that hard to convince a jury of this. In reality, the jury may only be 15-20% confident that the defendant caused your client’s illness. If this is the case, what is the chance that the jury is going to find in favor of your client?

How Does All These Impact Punitive Damages in California?

In a toxic tort or product liability case, a large part of your damages is going to comprise punitive damages. As with any other personal injury case, you’ll have your standard damages, including:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Property damage
  • Pain and suffering

But, with these cases, there is also the opportunity for punitive damages. Punitive damages are just what they sound like. They are intended to punish the defendant for outrageous or unreasonable conduct.

In the Monsanto Round-Up cases, the fact that Monsanto knew their product likely caused cancer is the lynchpin. If they were aware of this and intentionally chose not to warn the public, they deserve to be punished.

In recent cases, this isn’t the problem. Juries and even the public believe that Monsanto should be punished for their behavior. The question is – how much should the punishment be? What amount of punitive damages is too low? Or, too high?

In one of the seminal cases, Dewayne Johnson v Monsanto, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff. In addition to actual damages, they awarded him a very high amount in punitive damages. They awarded Johnson $39 million in actual damages and an additional $250 million in punitive damages!

Not surprisingly, the defendant appealed the decision. However, what was surprising is how they appealed the case. They didn’t ask the court to reverse the opinion entirely. Instead, they asked for a new trial to determine a fair amount of punitive damages. They argued that $250 million was an unreasonable amount.

The judge must have agreed because they did offer Johnson two options: he could accept the $39 million as a total settlement amount with no additional punitive damages, or he could agree to a new trial. The new trial would only relate to the issue of punitive damages.

What this demonstrates is that the future of the Roundup lawsuits is unclear when it comes to punitive damages. In the Johnson case, the Judge actually asked the plaintiff to forgo the entire amount awarded for punitive damages. By agreeing to the $39 million, Johnson would be agreeing to accept absolutely no amount in punitive damages. This could change the entire landscape of the Monsanto litigation going forward.

Contact a Los Angeles Mass Tort Lawyer Today

What the Johnson case has taught us is that, sometimes, the issue is not just about liability. Defense lawyers in toxic tort cases understand that, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Once it was proven that their client was aware that Roundup may cause cancer, their options became limited. It became a matter of cutting their losses rather than asking juries to find in favor of their client.

Part of what defense lawyers do is help their clients mitigate their damages. If they can somehow convince the courts and juries to limit the number of punitive damages assessed against Monsanto, the entire future of the Roundup litigation could be in question. As the cases build up, the well is going to start to run dry. This makes it even more crucial that you contact a Los Angeles mass tort lawyer today.