Workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing on Jan. 4, 2019. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing on Jan. 4, 2019. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Judge halves $784M for women exposed to Monsanto chemicals at Monroe school

Monsanto lawyers argued “arbitrary and excessive” damages in the Sky Valley Education Center case “cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

MONROE — A judge Tuesday more than halved the hundreds of millions of dollars awarded months ago to seven women who claimed exposure to harmful Monsanto-manufactured chemicals at the Sky Valley Education Center.

After a two-month trial in December, a King County jury awarded the women $784 million in punitive damages and $73 million in compensatory damages, a staggering sum that rivaled the combined total of all previous cases over exposure at the Monroe school.

Not long after, Monsanto’s lawyers returned to court, arguing the “arbitrary and excessive” damages “cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

The Monsanto lawyers, Jennifer Campbell and Hunter Ahern, pushed King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers to make equal the punitive and compensatory damages. The initial award from the jury had a ratio of over 10-to-1 punitive to compensatory.

The plaintiffs disagreed, arguing Monsanto’s “reprehensible” actions warranted the hefty sum.

“Based on the evidence presented at trial, the punitive damages the jury assessed against Monsanto are well-deserved,” the lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in court filings.

On Tuesday, Judge Rogers reduced the punitive damages to $365 million, a five-to-one ratio, with the $73 million compensatory damages the judge left unchanged. In doing so, he followed a law passed in Missouri, where Monsanto is based, that set a maximum five-to-one ratio for damages.

Still, Monsanto said the judge didn’t go far enough.

“While we are pleased with the Court’s decision to significantly reduce the unconstitutionally excessive damage award, we believe the court erred in failing to reduce the unconstitutionally excessive damage award to a proper ratio,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Monsanto still plans to appeal the verdict.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Michael Wampold, said in an email Tuesday that “our clients would gladly trade either the original amount or this reduced amount for their health. No amount of money will ever make up how their lives have been permanently turned upside down by Monsanto’s conduct.”

All seven plaintiffs in the case reported nervous system dysfunction related to learning or teaching in the Sky Valley Education Center.

They were among hundreds of students, parents, teachers and staff who have sued Bayer Pharmaceuticals — which acquired Monsanto in 2018 — over polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that leaked from light fixtures at the Monroe school. They claim officials allowed the prolonged exposure to fester, a Seattle Times investigation found.

Banned in 1979 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the manmade chemicals were used in fluorescent light ballasts. Monsanto produced the PCBs, also known as Aroclors.

When Sky Valley was built in 1950, some 95% of the light ballasts had PCBs, according to court documents. For years, teachers and students noticed brown, oily liquid leaking from the light fixtures. Staff would put trash cans underneath and tell pupils to stay away.

Lawsuits across the country have claimed Monsanto covered up the risks of chemical exposure, including cancer and other illnesses.

In 1955, for example, a Monsanto scientist reportedly urged his superiors to approve testing of PCBs.

“We know Aroclors are toxic,” the scientist wrote, according to court filings.

It took until 1977 for the company to stop producing PCBs, under intense regulatory pressure.

Jill Savery, one of the plaintiffs in this case, told reporters in 2018 she felt Sky Valley was “poisoning” her and her children. One of her daughters passed out at school. And her oldest daughter started carrying a mask because she was so sensitive to scents and chemicals. That wasn’t a problem before she spent time in the Sky Valley buildings, Savery said.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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