Three trials, three verdicts, nearly $2.5 billion in damages. A California jury this week awarded an astonishing $2.1 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to a husband and wife who claimed they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of using Roundup weedkiller for years.
This week’s verdict comes just over a month after another jury decision in California in March awarded about $80 million in damages and several months after the first blockbuster Roundup verdict that awarded a former school groundskeeper $289 million.
The decision is the third consecutive verdict that’s gone against Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer AG, and the three cases are the first that have gone to trial. Bayer and Monsanto are facing additional trials this summer in St. Louis.
In the most recent case, jury members were compelled enough by testimony about the dangers of Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, as well as the corporate practices of Monsanto to award Alva and Alberta Pilliod a combined $2 billion in punitive damages and $55 million in compensatory damages. The Pilliods had used Roundup for about 30 years to control weeds around their home.
Bayer indicated that it would appeal the verdict, and even if it stands, it’s likely the total damages awarded will be cut significantly. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have held that punitive damages should not exceed more than 10 times the amount awarded in compensatory damages. That still would make for a staggeringly high figure of more than half a billion dollars.
A Bayer statement called the verdict disappointing and blasted the foundation of the plaintiffs’ scientific argument, saying, “… plaintiffs in this case presented the jury with cherry-picked findings from a tiny fraction of the volume of studies available.”
However, that’s a sentiment that in itself ignores a large and growing body of scientific, regulatory and legal evidence that not only is glyphosate harmful but that Monsanto and Bayer have long been aware of the problems with the product but exerted pressure on federal regulators to keep Roundup legal.
Bayer’s Financial Exposure
Bayer AG, a Germany-based chemical giant, completed its purchase of St. Louis-based Monsanto in June 2018 for about $63 billion. Since the deal closed, Bayer has lost more than 40% of its value, largely over investors’ fears of litigation.
Bloomberg reported that this week’s California verdict, if the amount were to hold up, would mark the eighth-largest claim over a defective product. Bayer stock dropped in early-morning trading the day after the verdict and initially fell to a seven-year low.
Monsanto and Bayer are facing more than 13,000 additional lawsuits over Roundup, and analysts have estimated a potential total settlement value of as much as $10 billion.
In addition to the three California verdicts and other suits that already have been filed, evidence is growing that Monsanto used its considerable resources over the years to discredit those who argued that Roundup was unsafe. Bayer has admitted that Monsanto executives had compiled personal information on critics of pesticides and herbicides across Europe, admitting such a list would be a breach of company policy and could even be illegal.
Jurors in the most recent California case found that not only had Roundup caused the Pilliods’ cancer but that the company acted maliciously and/or fraudulently. Other juries have agreed with such sentiments.
Is the Science Settled?
A large plank of Bayer’s arguments in these cases from the start has been that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly determined that glyphosate does not cause cancer. While that may technically be true, relying so heavily on that one agency’s administrative classification of glyphosate is a gross misrepresentation of the science on this issue.
In fact, even the U.S. government itself is not in agreement. In April, a draft meta-analysis by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention board acknowledged that multiple studies have linked cancer and glyphosate. Not only does the report touch on the link between cancer and glyphosate, but it also covers the effects on reproduction and childhood development. Emails show that the EPA intervened to slow the CDC agency’s report.
Plus, unsealed court documents have revealed details about how Monsanto exerted pressure on the EPA and scientists to, in some cases, potentially falsify allegedly scientific studies indicating the safety of glyphosate.
These issues all point to Monsanto’s fears that the true nature of their product’s safety would be revealed and that the company spent considerable time, energy and possibly money to prevent fair and honest scientific analysis.
Where Is Roundup Used?
Roundup and other weedkilling products containing glyphosate are popular because they are highly effective. It’s estimated that about 90% of Roundup is used on farm fields and the remaining 10% of the hundreds of millions of pounds used every year are spread on lawns, golf courses, gardens, playgrounds, parks and other public spaces.
A WeedKillerCrisis.com analysis earlier this year found that about 96% of Americans live in counties where glyphosate is used for agricultural purposes. That’s about 314 million people.
Glyphosate is by far the most popular agrochemical, far outpacing the second most popular chemical, an herbicide called atrazine, and more than 130 million kilograms of glyphosate were used for farming in the U.S. in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.
Nearly 75% of that amount was spread on just two crops — corn (34%) and soybeans (40%). Midwestern cities led the way in total usage, with Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis and Sioux City using a combined 4.1 million kilograms.
On the state level, California uses by far the most glyphosate, followed by Washington, Illinois and Iowa. California’s usage levels are particularly noteworthy, as the first three Roundup trials all took place in that state.
So far, no U.S. states have approved bans on the chemical, though California does officially list the substance as a probable human carcinogen. More than a dozen other countries have banned or limited glyphosate, including Argentina, the Netherlands and Canada.
Several U.S. cities have moved to stop use of the chemical by municipal departments, such as parks and public works departments. Since Monsanto and Bayer seemingly have the EPA in their pocket, action on banning Roundup and glyphosate will have to take place at the local and state level.
Contact your state legislators and local elected officials. Start a Facebook group for concerned citizens. Write letters to the editor of local newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. Ask local hardware stores to stop selling the product, and make sure your neighbors don’t use it either. And remember not to give up. Monsanto and Bayer have incredibly deep pockets and have spent millions trying to discredit honest science about the dangers of Roundup. But dedicated individuals can and have made a difference.
- Reuters, Bayer stock continues rout after $2 billion award in Roundup trial. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bayer-glyphosate-lawsuit-stocks/bayer-stock-continues-rout-after-2-billion-award-in-roundup-trial-idUSKCN1SK0LQ
- Bloomberg, Bayer’s $2 Billion Roundup Damages Boost Pressure to Settle. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-13/bayer-loses-its-third-trial-over-claims-roundup-causes-cancer
- Bayer, Bayer statement on jury’s decision in California State Glyphosate Trial. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.bayer.us/en/newsroom/press-releases/article/?id=123306
- Financial Times, Bayer admits Monsanto arm kept list of pesticide critics. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/f3e12228-75a7-11e9-be7d-6d846537acab
- U.S. Right to Know, Read the emails, texts that show EPA efforts to slow ATSDR glyphosate review. (2019). Retrieved from https://usrtk.org/pesticides/read-the-emails-texts-that-show-epa-efforts-to-slow-atsdr-glyphosate-review/