A San Francisco jury on Friday ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay $289 million to a former school groundskeeper dying of cancer, saying the company’s popular Roundup weed killer contributed to his disease.
The lawsuit brought by Dewayne Johnson was the first to go to trial among hundreds filed in state and federal courts saying Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which Monsanto denies.
Monsanto was acquired by the German company Bayer AG in a deal that was completed in June.
Jurors in state Superior Court agreed the product contributed to Johnson’s cancer and the company should have provided a label warning of the potential health hazard. Johnson’s attorneys sought and won $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million of the $373 million they wanted in punitive damages.
“This jury found Monsanto acted with malice and oppression because they knew what they were doing was wrong and doing it with reckless disregard for human life,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a member of Johnson’s legal team. “This should send a strong message to the boardroom of Monsanto.”
The trial was expedited due to Johnson's terminal illness; doctors say he only has months to live.
Allegations of Cover-up
Johnson, 46, is a father of three who contended that Monsanto covered up research linking the weedkiller Roundup to cancer.
He routinely applied Roundup during his employment with the Benicia school district. Lawyers for Johnson showed photos of him with severe skin lesions, which they say were developed from regular exposure to Roundup. From CBS News:
He sprayed large quantities from a 50-gallon tank attached to a truck, his attorney, Brent Wisner, told jurors during his opening statement. When the wind was gusty, it would cover his face, Wisner said. When a hose broke once, it soaked his entire body.
Johnson was ultimately diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014.
The lawsuit also accused Monsanto of intimidating scientists. It said the company covered up research showing that glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, can cause cancer. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
He claims in his lawsuit that Monsanto not only failed to warn people about the “dangerous characteristics” of its product, but actually “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies” in a “prolonged campaign of misinformation.”
When an expert hired by the company raised concerns about the product's health risks, Wisner said the company sought to find a different expert rather than warn consumers. From the Guardian:
Wisner further cited Monsanto emails from decades prior, in which the company was working with a genotoxicity expert who reviewed a series of 1990s studies. He raised concerns about Roundup impacts on humans and suggested further areas of research. After the expert’s analyses, Monsanto representatives began considering finding a different expert and also started working on a press statement saying the product carried no risk, according to Johnson’s lawyer.
Johnson's defense pointed to a decision in 2015 by the World Health Organization to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
A number of countries have since banned or restricted the sale and use of glyphosate. In 2017, California added glyphosate to its list of carcinogens.
Pitting Science Against Science
Lawyers for Monsanto accused Johnson’s lawyers of “cherrypicking” studies and countered with findings by the Environmental Protection Agency deeming the product safe to use.
They also told the jury that non-Hodgkin lymphoma takes years to develop and therefore, Johnson must have contracted the illness before he began working for the school district.
"The scientific evidence is overwhelming that glyphosate-based products do not cause cancer and did not cause Mr. Johnson's cancer," Monsanto attorney George Lombardi said in court.
A federal judge recently blocked California from requiring Monsanto to include a cancer warning label on Roundup weed killer, pointing to findings by government regulators that glyphosate is safe to use.
While the outcome of the California trial won't affect the other lawsuits, it could serve as a barometer of how the others might go.
Zen Honeycutt, the executive director of Moms Across America, a group trying to get Roundup taken off store shelves, called it the "trial of the century." From the Chronicle:
“The health, economy, and future of America depends on eliminating exposure to toxic chemical products such as Roundup,” she told the paper.
In an interview with the Guardian, Timothy Litzenburg, one of Johnson’s lawyers, called his client "incredibly brave."
"Whatever happens … his sons will get to know that their dad was brave enough to go up against Monsanto completely alone, and first, before he died."
Associated Press contributed to this report.