On August 10, a San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded a former school groundskeeper $289.2 million in a lawsuit against agricultural giant Monsanto. Dewayne “Lee” Johnson worked for the Benicia Unified School District, about 40 miles east of the city, and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer in the course of his employment.
This is the first verdict handed down in a wave of litigation against the company; according to the New York Times, Monsanto is facing over 5,000 similar lawsuits in the United States. German multinational pharmaceutical company Bayer AG has vowed to “step up its defense” of the brand as it began the formal integration of Monsanto, acquired in June.
Details of the case, and its legal ramifications, are below. If you’re here seeking legal information, or you need to ask a legal question relating to Roundup, learn more here:
History of the Case
According to Bloomberg, Johnson mixed and sprayed hundreds of gallons of Roundup over the course of his career as a groundskeeper. His exposure included accidents, at least one of which left him “soaked from head to toe” in the herbicide.
Johnson was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and in July 2017—following chemotherapy and other treatments—his oncologist delivered news that he would likely only live another six months. Johnson’s attorneys and doctors have stated, in court filings, that he has improved since starting a new drug treatment in November, but is still too weak on occasion to even speak or get out of bed. According to testimony from a January 2018 deposition, over 80 percent of his body was covered by lesions.
Johnson’s lawsuit largely focused on glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide. Glyphosate was originally approved in 1974 for use in Monsanto’s weed killer, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency initially classified the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1985.
That classification was changed in 1991, and a December 2017 EPA Draft Risk Assessment for Glyphosates further concluded that “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The EPA’s assessment, however, stands in stark contrast to a 2015 determination from of the cancer agency for the World Health Organization’s (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which found that glyphosate was likely carcinogenic.
In March 2017, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) posted a notice on its website that glyphosate would be added to the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer. Despite delays due to the pending case Monsanto v OEHHA, glyphosate was officially added to the Proposition 65 list on July 7, 2017.
In May, Judge Curtis Karnow issued an order allowing jurors to consider not only scientific evidence related to the cause of Johnson’s cancer, but also allegations that Monsanto suppressed evidence of the risks of its weed killing products.
Legal impacts of the decision
Johnson’s lawyer argued that Monsanto knew of the cancer risk posed by Roundup as early as the 1970s, but never informed the public and instead engaged in a “deliberate effort to distort the truth.” He claimed that Monsanto “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies” revealing the dangers of its herbicides, and the company led a “prolonged campaign of misinformation” to convince consumers, farmers, and government agencies that Roundup was safe.
The scientific evidence in these types of cases includes research studies indicating that glyphosate can lead to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other ailments, and research showing glyphosate formulations in Monsanto’s commercial products are more toxic than glyphosate alone.
Evidence submitted by Johnson also included internal company emails that Johnson’s attorney claimed showed the company rejected critical research and expert warnings. Scott Partridge, vice president of Monsanto, told BBC Radio 4’s Today show that these emails were “taken completely out of context.”
While significant punitive damage awards are often reduced on appeal, Monsanto will likely have a more difficult time arguing that the judge should have barred scientific evidence as insufficient. In July, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said evidence that glyphosate can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma seemed “rather weak,” but still ruled that the opinions of three experts were not “junk science” that should be excluded from a trial.
The judge spent a week in March hearing dueling testimony from epidemiologists to determine the strengths and weaknesses of research on the cancer risk of glyphosate, and whether such claims met other requirements to be considered valid.
A federal judge allowing the same experts to move forward with testimony would seem to bode well for plaintiffs, as these types of standards are often much more rigid in federal courts than state courts.
What comes next?
Monsanto has already announced that it will appeal the San Francisco state court decision. In that case, Johnson sought $412 million in damages, and the jury ultimately awarded him a total of $289 million: $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.
The next Roundup trial is scheduled for October 22 in St. Louis. That case involves an Arkansas resident in his 40s, and lawyers for plaintiffs in that case have claimed they have new evidence that “is even more disturbing than the evidence seen to date.”
If you believe you have a potential case against Monsanto for a cancer diagnosis related to Roundup, we recommend you contact a personal injury attorney to discuss the matter.