Recent Verdicts Shed Light on the Power of Punitive Damages in Product Liability Cases

Philadelphia, San Diego, and St. Louis – Four separate products liability trials ended with large plaintiff verdicts in October and November 2023, highlighting the potential danger of punitive damages. Three of these verdicts were against Monsanto in Roundup weed killer cases, while the fourth was against Mitsubishi. The bulk of the awards, totaling $3 billion, was punitive damages alone.

In Philadelphia, a jury awarded $175 million to a plaintiff who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup for over 20 years. The jury found Monsanto liable for negligently designing Roundup and failing to warn consumers about its potential cancer-causing properties. A jury in San Diego also awarded $332 million to a plaintiff who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup. However, the San Diego jury only found Monsanto liable for failure to warn, not for negligent design. In Missouri, a jury awarded $1.56 billion to three plaintiffs who claimed Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. Each plaintiff was individually awarded $500 million in punitive damages. These verdicts followed a previous verdict against Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri, which was the first defeat for Monsanto in a Roundup case.

In another case, a jury in Philadelphia awarded nearly $980 million to a plaintiff who was paralyzed in a car crash due to a seat belt failure in a Mitsubishi vehicle. The jury found that Mitsubishi improperly designed the seatbelt, leading to the large punitive damages award.

These recent verdicts highlight the potential for significant punitive damages based on alleged wrongdoing by the defendants. However, these awards may be reduced under U.S. Supreme Court precedent that limits excessive punitive damages. Nonetheless, pre-trial and trial strategies can be crucial in defending against plaintiffs seeking punitive damages.

In other news, the FDA is proposing to permanently incorporate the use of remote monitoring tools for all drug inspection programs through new draft guidance. These tools were initially permitted as temporary measures during the public health emergency. The FDA will use risk management methods to determine when remote inspections are appropriate, and facilities are encouraged to participate. The draft guidance outlines the use of videoconferences, livestreaming, and document evaluation through FDA IT platforms during remote inspections. Facilities will receive written observations and are encouraged to respond within 15 business days.

California is leading the way in banning certain chemicals in personal care products and food additives. The state recently expanded its ban on 24 chemicals to a total of 50. California’s actions in this area are significant due to its large economy, and it is likely that other states and the FDA will follow suit. The ban on certain food additives in California, such as Red Dye 3 and brominated vegetable oil, aligns with the European Union’s previous bans on these additives due to health concerns.

In the realm of PFAS litigation, putative class actions asserting misleading advertising claims based on the alleged presence of PFAS in consumer products are on the rise. However, recent court decisions have dismissed such claims that solely rely on general product testing and demand more specific allegations tied to the products at issue.

In summary, recent verdicts in product liability trials have highlighted the potential for significant punitive damages. The FDA is moving towards permanently incorporating remote inspection tools, and California’s regulatory actions on chemical bans in personal care products and food additives may influence similar restrictions across the United States. The courts are demanding more specific allegations in PFAS-related class actions.