Last year, a California jury awarded Edwin Hardeman more than $80 million in damages. The jury was persuaded to believe that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, because he was exposed to Roundup weed killer for more than 30 years.

The jury not only believed that Roundup caused Hardeman’s cancer, but that Monsanto – now Bayer – knew about the dangers of its popular pesticide. Despite that knowledge, the company didn’t warn consumers. There was even evidence to suggest that Monsanto employees buried information and suppressed research with these findings.

The award included $5.27M in compensatory damages for things like medical bills, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. The vast majority of the award – $75 million – was for punitive damages. These were awarded to punish Bayer for its bad behavior.

Judge Cites Reprehensible Conduct, Still Reduces Punitive Award

Bayer appealed the verdict. On appeal, a federal judge cut the punitive award by $55 million. Hardeman’s award, as it now stands, is for a sum of $55.27 million. The judge explained that while the company’s actions were “reprehensible,” punitive damages of that “magnitude” weren’t warranted, “particularly in the absence of evidence showing intentional concealment of a known or obvious safety risk.”

Is There a Cap on Punitive Damages?

Yes and no. It depends on applicable state laws. In California, where the Hardeman case was based, there is no law on the books limiting punitive damages in personal injury cases. However, the state is bound by federal court decisions.

The Supreme Court has stated that punitive damages, when “grossly excessive or arbitrary,” violate the Fourteenth Amendment. When is a punitive award grossly excessive? Punitive damages shouldn’t exceed more than four times the amount of compensatory damages that are awarded in a case. An award of nine times the amount of compensatory damages could even be permissible in extraordinary cases. Punitive damages that exceed that threshold would likely be invalid.

Edwin Hardeman’s original punitive award in the Roundup lawsuit was 15 times greater than his compensatory award. That’s nearly double what the Supreme Court said is permissible in extraordinary cases. In reducing Hardeman’s punitive award to $20 million, the federal judge put the verdict in line with standards set by the Supreme Court.