A jury in August 2018 ordered chemical company Monsanto to pay $289 million to a former school groundskeeper who got terminal cancer after he used Roundup, one of the most common weed killers in the world.
The federal court jury deliberated for three days before it found that Dewayne Johnson’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma was partially due at least to using glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Johnson in his job as a groundskeeper was required to regularly use the chemical to spray athletic fields.
The judge on the case, Suzanne Ramos Bolanos, stated that Monsanto acted with malice, oppression or fraud and must be punished for its misconduct. Monsanto’s vice president, Scott Partridge, stated after the ruling that Monsanto will appeal.
Partridge said in a media statement that his company was sympathetic to the man and his family. But the court decision does not alter the fact that at least 800 scientific studies and reviews support the evidence that glyphosate does not lead to cancer and did not cause Johnson’s cancer.
Partridge said that the company will continue to strongly defend the product in court, which has a 40-year history of entirely safe use and is a vital, effective and safe herbicide for farmers and consumers.
Hundreds of Lawsuits Against Monsanto To Proceed
The huge payout in the case, even though it is under appeal, means that hundreds of lawsuits that claim Roundup causes cancer will proceed to trial. This despite the fact that Monsanto claims there is not a connection between glyphosate and cancer.
Families and cancer victims presenting their lawsuits say that Monsanto was aware of the risk of glyphosate for many years but never warned consumers. US District Judge Vince Chhabria previously stated there is weak evidence that the chemical causes cancer, but the opinions of three scientific experts that link glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were not junk science.
Johnson’s Health Outlook Grim
According to Johnson’s doctors, he is unlikely to live past 2020. The 46-year old Bay-area worker and resident was employed for a California county school system. He applied the week killer up to 30 times per year as part of his job to control pests and weeds on athletic fields. During the period he worked there, he mixed and sprayed hundreds of gallons of Roundup.
During his testimony, he said there were two accidents where he was soaked with Roundup, with the first one happening in 2012. Two years after that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On bad days, Johnson is unable to speak. He has lesions on up to 80% of his body.
One of the most heartbreaking parts of the testimony was when Johnson described how he told his sons that he had terminal cancer. His wife now must work two 40 hour per week jobs to support their family.
His attorney, Micah Dortch, stated that the jury confirmed what was clear since the investigation started: that Monsanto knew that Roundup has cancer-causing ingredients and did not take the product off the shelf to protect consumers. The company, the attorney alleged, chose corporate profit and greed above people.
In the past, Monsanto has sued the Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Office in California for adding the chemical to a list of chemicals that cause cancer.
There is much conflicting evidence on whether glyphosate exposure leads to cancer. The EPA has dithered on whether glyphosate is a carcinogen. In a review of the chemical in 2017, it concluded that it most likely not a carcinogen. But the WHO for its part has classified the chemical as a likely carcinogen.
Environmental Groups Cheer Ruling
The huge verdict and award drew praise from many environmental groups in August when it was announced. The Environmental Working Group stated that Monsanto has made Roundup the Oxycontin of pesticides, and now the addiction and damaged caused has come home to roost. The group added that the decision will not cure Johnson’s cancer, but it will send a strong message to the chemical and pesticide industries.
Johnson was given a total of $39 million in past and future losses, economic and noneconomic, but it was the huge $250 million in punitive damages that seemed to stun the courtroom. A sigh as heard on video when the judge made the announcement.
Dressed in casual attire, Johnson had a brief word with his attorney when the figure was revealed. He then bowed his head as another attorney patted him on the back and spoke a few words to him. After the jury was released from its role in the trial, Johnson hugged and got congratulations from members of his legal team, while smiling. He later made a phone call on his cell phone.
What Johnson’s Lawyers Had to Prove
While it is medically impossible to prove that Roundup definitely caused Johnson’s cancer, it is also impossible for Monsanto to prove it did not. In this emotional case, Monsanto did not have to prove anything; the burden of proof was on the groundskeeper.
But that does not mean that his lawyers had to prove that Roundup was the entire cause of cancer. All they needed to prove was that Roundup was a substantial contributing factor to cancer. Under California law, this means that Johnson’s cancer would not have happened if he had not been exposed to Roundup.
It is possible that his cancer was caused by something else; most lymphoma cases are idiopathic, meaning there is no definite cause. In the past, most non-Hodgkins lymphoma cancer cases were not linked to one major cause, but the tide is beginning to turn, just as it took years for people to understand that tobacco is a major factor for causing lung cancer.
You cannot take a lung cancer tumor and test it and 100% prove that tobacco caused it. But there is a connection to tobacco that has been proven, and the same thing is beginning to happen with these pesticides.
- Monsanto Johnson Trial Verdict. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/10/health/monsanto-johnson-trial-verdict/index.html
- Jury Orders Monsanto Pay $289 Million. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/08/10/jury-orders-monsanto-pay-289-million-cancer-patient-roundup-lawsuit/962297002/