The court victory was celebrated by plaintiffs as a breakthrough like those achieved in landmark tobacco and asbestos cases, as a victory for public health, as a defeat for corporate manipulation and deceit, and as consolation for a grievously injured victim.
On Aug. 10, a San Francisco jury, after days of deliberation, awarded former groundskeeper DeWayne “Lee” Johnson $39.2 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages from agricultural giant Monsanto, concluding that its top-selling product Roundup had indeed caused his terminal cancer—non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Usually, such cases elicit a shudder of pity for the victim but with the knowledge that—in tobacco and asbestos cases, for example—we can choose to abstain and avoid. Glyphosate, by contrast, is inescapable: It’s in our food, water, air, soil, our dogs’ urine, and human breast milk. It’s in our vaccines and even, at very high levels, in common food items.
This verdict represents a legal near-death blow, undercutting billions of public relations dollars Monsanto has invested in keeping its star product—labeled in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen—free of criticism over cancer fears.
Speaking at a press conference with colleagues from three law firms, trial attorney Brent Wisner said, “This case was historic.”
“Every major known carcinogen had a moment like this—a moment when the science finally caught up, when they could no longer bury it,” Wisner said.
In a statement to jurors, he stressed that internal documents made public for the first time in discovery for this case prove that “Monsanto has known for decades that glyphosate and specifically Roundup could cause cancer.”
In reaching its decision, the jury heard eight weeks of testimony from independent scientists, research papers going back decades, and private Monsanto emails.
At the press conference, Wisner, 34, managed to convey the enormous importance of the verdict with clear words, spoken simply. “You know you did something wrong,” he said, summing up the jury verdict’s message to Monsanto, “and now you have to pay.”
“I cannot say how important this case is,” he said. “There are 4,000 other cases filed around the United States and countless other thousands out there who are suffering from cancer because Monsanto didn’t give them a choice.”
“Choice” is one of the resonant words of this landmark case, because Monsanto never warned its consumers about the potential dangers of its product.
“Monsanto gambled and lost,” said David Steele, a toxic tort attorney in San Francisco who usually litigates on behalf of corporations.
When asked if the verdict surprised him, Steele said: “Yes. It was humongous—$300 million for one plaintiff, that is a lot of money. That’s definitely an indication that Monsanto acted with malice or oppression or fraud in marketing their products and concealing its dangerous properties.”
“Monsanto might try to undo the verdict,” he said. “It’ll lose, but that’s a standard thing. What they want is an appeal that reverses it, that would save them a few billion dollars.
“This case is not going to be finally resolved any time soon, but, all the other cases waiting in the wings will now flood forward. They have everything they need. There’s a lot of money to be made on the Monsanto carcass.”
Johnson, the man who opened the litigation floodgates, is 46 and a father of three. He was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma after continuous exposure to Roundup in his work as a groundskeeper at a school. He grew alarmed when his whole body erupted in lesions, rashes, and sores—and sought answers repeatedly from Monsanto, which ignored his inquiries.
Johnson used protective gear when spraying the chemical, but at various times his skin was directly exposed to the herbicide and crop desiccant that is claimed in an infographic “signed” by Monsanto’s social sciences lead to be less toxic than caffeine or table salt.
“Roundup destroyed my whole life,” Johnson said on the witness stand. His wife testified how he cried himself to sleep, worrying about how to support his family, when his sickness made him unable to work, and his wife had to support the family and work several jobs to sustain his medical treatment.
“The cause is way bigger than me,” Johnson said at the press conference, after thanking his legal team, family, and supporters around the world. “Hopefully, this thing will start to get the attention that it needs.”
The $250 million in punitive damages awarded to Johnson reflected Monsanto’s failure to warn consumers that its popular weed killer causes cancer. Beyond that, plaintiff’s attorneys said Monsanto engaged in four decades of distortion and manipulation not only of science, but of federal agencies such as the EPA, science foundations, and mass media.
“In many ways, it was American democracy and the justice system that was on trial in this case,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the attorneys from a total of three law firms litigating the landmark case.
Kennedy spoke of “the subversion of democracy” in Monsanto’s relentless campaign to control public perception through mass media, “science,” and the courts, as well as “the corruption of public officials [and] the capture of agencies that are supposed to protect us.”
Monsanto vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement:
“We are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family. Today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews—and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world—support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer.
“We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others.”
The verdict sent shockwaves across the world, meeting with jubilation among thousands of glyphosate-skeptics and silence among news sites and blogs, such as Respectful Insolence, which for years has mocked the notion that glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, causes cancer.
On social media, comments cropped up like so many weeds, with people recounting stories of family members and animals, especially dogs, that had died of cancer following exposure to Roundup.
Globally, sentiment has long been against Monsanto, particularly in Europe. The European Union, prior to the verdict, had already issued a non-binding resolution to ban glyphosate in all products by 2022, and at least one major UK retailer announced it was reviewing carrying Roundup in light of the decision in Johnson’s case.
Monsanto, a 117-year-old company and the maker of Agent Orange, DDT, and genetically modified organisms, has been referred to as “the most vilified company on the planet.” With a $66 billion merger with German Bayer completed in June 2018, the “vilified” name itself—Monsanto—will be retired, but not those of its products. On news of the verdict, Bayer saw its stock lose $11 billion in value.