More than 11,000 lawsuits are now pending against Bayer AG and Monsanto over their controversial weed-killer products, according to the German company’s own 2018 financial reports.
Those thousands of cases come on the heels of a blockbuster jury verdict last fall in California and were disclosed just after a second California trial got underway in late February 2019. After the fall 2018 jury verdict, in which the jury found that a groundskeeper’s terminal cancer was caused by his use of Roundup and awarded him $289 million, thousands more individuals with long-term exposure to Roundup are coming forward.
Late in 2018, Bayer indicated it knew of 9,300 plaintiffs, which means the number of known lawsuits the company is facing has jumped by more than 20 percent in just a couple of months. A second California trial is going on now, and at least one case is proceeding in Wisconsin, where a judge did deny a class-action certification but has allowed portions of the suit to proceed.
Where do the various cases stand, how have they impacted Bayer and Monsanto and how are companies that use crops sprayed with glyphosate as part of their supply chain responding?
California Roundup Cases & Verdict
The state of California remains the epicenter of the Roundup lawsuit world. In addition to the huge jury verdict last fall, a second case is currently underway in the state and 700 others are pending in federal court in San Francisco.
In the fall of 2018, DeWayne “Lee” Johnson, a 46-year-old father of three and former school district groundskeeper, won a jury verdict of $289 million after the jury members agreed with Johnson’s allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer caused him to develop terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company failed to warn consumers of the dangers posed by Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate.
Johnson later accepted a reduced amount of $78 million, but Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer AG, have appealed the jury’s verdict. That appeal is expected to be heard in state court in San Francisco in April 2019. Johnson has sought to have Monsanto’s appeals expedited because his health is deteriorating and it’s unlikely he’ll survive the year, his lawyers have said.
In February 2019, a new trial got underway in federal court, the first such trial at the federal level. The plaintiff in this case, Edwin Hardeman, suffers from B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and his lawyers believe his cancer was contracted through regular contact he had with the Roundup he used to kill weeks in the Sonoma County, California property he owns.
The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, granted a motion by Monsanto to split the trial into two phases. The first phase will be limited to determining whether Monsanto’s products caused Hardeman’s cancer. If the jury rules unanimously that Roundup gave Hardeman cancer, a second phase will proceed in which Hardeman’s attorneys can present evidence regarding Monsanto’s alleged efforts to purposefully cover up the danger associated with Roundup and glyphosate.
On the first day of opening arguments, the judge sanctioned Hardeman’s attorney, as he said she was attempting to introduce second-phase evidence during the first phase.
More Cases to Come
The Hardeman case currently underway in federal court in San Francisco is just the first of some 650-plus cases that have been combined as multijurisdictional litigation under U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria. Several more cases are in line behind Hardeman’s case.
A separate case in state court in California is expected to get underway in March 2019. In that case, a husband and wife allege that they both developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup. That case is being heard in Alameda County Superior Court.
Other Trials Around the U.S.
A second major hub of Roundup cancer lawsuits is St. Louis, Missouri, the city where Monsanto is headquartered. Thousands of cases have been filed in both city and county courts in St. Louis, and at least two of them are expected to get underway in the first half of 2019.
A state trial is expected to get underway this year in a Montana court in addition to several lawsuits that have been filed in Delaware, which is the state where Monsanto is incorporated, but no trials are yet scheduled in those cases.
A judge in Wisconsin denied a petition for a class action certification of several cases, but the judge did permit the case of Thomas Blitz to continue against Monsanto. The judge also dismissed a portion of the case in which Blitz also named Scotts Miracle-Gro as a co-defendant. Blitz alleges that Monsanto engaged in deceptive practices by indicating its product was safe for humans and animals because of the presence of enzymes that do not attack mammals as they attack plants.
Impact on Bayer & Monsanto
Both companies have fully denied the allegations levied in the current and pending lawsuits. They point to studies they claim support the safety of glyphosate. But the market may have a different take.
Shortly after the fall 2018 jury verdict, Bayer’s stock tumbled to their lowest levels in seven years. Shares rebounded, and after the federal judge’s decision to split the Hardeman case into two phases, Bayer’s stock climbed slightly.
Despite phasing more than 11,000 lawsuits over Roundup, the CEO of Bayer AG, Werner Baumann, said recently that his company does not regret its $63 billion purchase of Monsanto, which was completed in 2017.
Other Companies & Glyphosate
While Monsanto is responsible for introducing glyphosate into such widespread usage throughout the U.S. food production system, Monsanto and Bayer are not the only companies facing potential litigation thanks to the potent weed killer.
General Mills was sued in 2018 by several groups over testing that revealed potentially dangerous traces of glyphosate in products such as Cheerios cereal. As part of a settlement in that case, General Mills agreed to remove labels that indicate certain products are “100% natural.” A similar cause was brought against Quaker Oats after testing found levels of glyphosate in oatmeal. That case was later dismissed.
Testing by the Environmental Working Group has repeatedly found glyphosate in food. In fact, 95 percent of the oat products tested by EWG in one of its projects tested positive for glyphosate.
Testing EWG released just this year found varying amounts of glyphosate in Mueller, Barilla, Harris Teeter and Signature select pasta and cereals from General Mills and Kelloggs. Testing by the Food and Drug Administration has also revealed glyphosate in a majority of corn- and wheat-based food samples; the testing notably did not cover oats or wheat.
While the world awaits verdicts in the California case and watches the proceedings of the other cases around the U.S., the future of Roundup and glyphosate remain unclear.
It’s official U.S. government policy that glyphosate is not harmful when used correctly, but that’s far from a consensus view. In fact, both the state of California and the World Health Organization believe glyphosate most likely causes cancer in humans, and for years, even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed.
These trials are a matter of great interest not just because of the possible damage to those who used Roundup as part of their jobs or to control weeds on their properties but because so much glyphosate is being used all over the United States every day that it’s virtually impossible to escape it.
If the jury verdict in DeWayne “Lee” Johnson’s case holds up on appeal, it’s very likely that the 11,200 pending cases before us now will grow even more, as there’s no doubt many potential plaintiffs are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Assuming Johnson’s verdict and award are upheld, Monsanto could very well face extinction. Even if only half the cases currently filed result in a judgement against Monsanto that’s only half what Johnson agreed to, the company would face nearly $500 billion in damages, and that’s figuring just half of the reduced amount Johnson agreed to accept.
- More than 11,000 People Are Now Suing Bayer over Weedkiller Cancer Risk. (2019.) Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2019/02/27/bayer-monsanto-weedkiller-cancer-risk/
- General Mills To Remove ‘Natural’ Label From Granola Bars After Glyphosate Lawsuit. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bethkaiserman/2018/08/28/general-mills-to-remove-natural-label-from-granola-bars-after-glyphosate-lawsuit/#1561ca1e73c9
- U.S. Right to Know, Monsanto Papers. (2019.) Retrieved from https://usrtk.org/monsanto-papers/
- The Guardian, Monsanto ordered to pay $289m as jury rules weedkiller caused man’s cancer. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/10/monsanto-trial-cancer-dewayne-johnson-ruling
- NPR, Groundskeeper Accepts Reduced $78 Million Award In Monsanto Cancer Suit. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/11/01/662812333/groundskeeper-accepts-reduced-78-million-in-monsanto-cancer-suit
- Bloomberg, Bayer Sags as Judge Finds Roundup Weed Killer Caused Cancer. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-22/bayer-loses-bid-to-wipe-out-first-roundup-cancer-verdict
- Fortune, Bayer Shares Spike After a Court Ruling in Its Pending Roundup-Cancer Cases. (2019.) Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2019/01/04/bayer-stock-monsanto-roundup-cancer/
- Environmental Working Group, Glyphosate Contamination in Food Goes Far Beyond Oat Products. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/02/glyphosate-contamination-food-goes-far-beyond-oat-products