CVN screenshot of plaintiffs' attorney Rick Friedman delivering his closing argument
Seattle, WA: A Washington state court jury sacked Bayer AG’s Monsanto unit with a $185 million verdict on Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by teachers exposed to toxic chemicals in a dilapidated school, including an award of punitive damages resulting from the application of Missouri law.
Tuesday’s verdict ends a long-running trial that began in early June over claims by three teachers who allege they suffered neurological injuries due to exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The full trial, which took place in a sprawling repurposed convention space to accommodate social distancing, was webcast and recorded gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
PCB’s are long-lasting chemicals used in a variety of industrial products, and the teachers claim their exposure occurred via PCBs in fluorescent lighting from the 1960’s and building calk in the Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe, Washington.
Due to their extremely durable chemical composition and widespread dispersal throughout the environment, background exposure to PCBs is common, but the teachers’ lawsuit alleged exposure levels at the school were particularly high.
The teachers blamed their health problems, which include severe fatigue and cognitive difficulties, on exposure to PCBs from 2011 to 2015. They claim Monsanto, the sole company to manufacture PCBs, did so despite knowing they posed a risk to the public prior to being banned in the 1970’s.
Bayer argued the level of PCB exposure at the school was low, and that plaintiffs' alleged injuries could be the result of other safety issues at the 70-year-old facility, like extensive mold contamination.
After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury awarded $15 million, $18 million and $17 million in compensatory damages to teachers Kerry Erickson, Michelle Leahy, and Michell Marquardt, respectively.
Each woman also received an additional $45 million in punitive damages under an application of Missouri state law, since many of the corporate decisions in question took place in Monsanto’s former headquarters in that state.
Lead plaintiff attorney Rick Friedman of Friedman Rubin PLLP noted the significance of the verdict to future Sky Valley PCB-related litigation, which includes claims from nearly 200 other teachers and parents who worked at or attended the facility.
“This is a big step in holding Monsanto accountable for poisoning every man woman and child in North America," Friedman told CVN after the trial. "If politicians won’t make Monsanto clean up its mess, juries will,” he said.
Bayer noted in a statement that the light fixtures in question “were decades beyond their useful life” and highlighted that Monsanto, which Bayer purchased in 2018, hasn’t manufactured PCBs in over 40 years.
The company said it respectfully disagrees with the jury’s verdict, maintaining that on-site testing confirmed only low levels of PCBs in the Sky Valley facility.
“The undisputed evidence in this case does not support the conclusions that plaintiffs were exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs at the Sky Valley Education Center (SVEC) or that any exposure could have possibly caused their claimed injuries,” Bayer stated.
Bayer went on to say that grounds for a possible appeal could include the awarding of punitive damages under Missouri law, despite punitive damages not being permitted under Washington State’s Product Liability Act. The company also cited issues with supposedly “unprecedented methodologies” used by the plaintiffs exposure and causation experts.
Unlimited on-demand gavel-to-gavel video of the full trial, including all expert witness testimony, is available with a subscription to CVN's trial video library. That collection also includes two trials in California state court in 2016 over exposure to PCBs that both ended in defense verdicts.
Monsanto was represented at the Washington trial by Shook Hardy & Bacon.
The case is captioned Kerry L. Erickson, et al. v. Monsanto Company, et al., case number 18-2-11915-4 in the Superior Court for the State of Washington in King County.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org