California Jury Awards $289 Million in Pesticide Lawsuit

Published August 23, 2018

In the first civil trial over claims the popular herbicide Roundup causes cancer, a California superior court jury awarded Dewayne Lee Johnson more than $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Monsanto Corporation.

Johnson, a former groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District, sued Monsanto, claiming exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the company’s Roundup, caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a type of cancer.

The verdict in state court came just a month after a federal judge in San Francisco denied a request from Monsanto for a summary judgment to end another case against the company, in which Monsanto argued scientific evidence does not show the popular weed-killer Roundup causes cancer.

There are about 4,000 claims against Monsanto pending in federal and state courts across the United States. 

Will Appeal Verdict

The California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $39.2 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages for failing to warn consumers that exposure to Roundup causes cancer.

Monsanto says Roundup is safe, having received approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its equivalent agency in the EU. Monsanto will appeal the jury’s verdict, the company announced.

“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 glyphosate does not cause cancer and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer,” Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement. “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.” 

‘Confounding Factors’

The jury’s decision was unjustified by the scientific facts, says Jay Lehr, science director of The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The award of $249 million to DeWayne Johnson extracted from the Monsanto chemical company is an outrage when one considers the hundreds of well-performed studies demonstrating both the safety and efficacy of the Roundup herbicide” Lehr said. “These studies prove conclusively that it is not a significant carcinogen.

“Juries and judges really do not understand confounding factors in human health that impact whether a person developed cancer as a result of chemical exposure, genes, or lifestyle choices,” said Lehr. “Nothing in this trial tells one everything that should be known about Mr. Johnson’s lifestyle that could have contributed to his illness, and although we still know too little concerning the hows and whys of cancer, we know a great deal about the chemicals in Roundup, on which more than $100 million has been spent studying its safety.” 

Farmers, Consumers, Environment Pay

Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says farmers and consumers will pay for the jury’s decision.

“There is no good evidence that glyphosate causes cancer,” said Logomasini. “However, trial lawyers are more than willing to bring such cases so they can collect hefty legal fees and set the stage for more cases. Unfortunately, farmers and consumers will pay the price, since glyphosate and other herbicides eliminate the labor-intensive task of manually removing weeds or tilling the soil.

“Herbicides also have important environmental benefits because they make no-till agriculture possible, which reduces soil erosion and runoff that could otherwise adversely impact nearby waterways,” Logomasini said. “If this decision eventually leads to a ban or voluntary elimination of this product, it will likely make farming more expensive and difficult, raise prices for food, and harm the environment by increasing the need to till the soil for weed control.”

Judge: Evidence ‘Rather Weak’

In the Northern District Court of California in March, Judge Vince Chhabria held a weeklong hearing on the scientific basis for claims linking between glyphosate and cancer. Approximately 400 lawsuits against Monsanto are pending before Chhabria’s court.

“The evidence that glyphosate is currently causing NHL in human beings [is] pretty sparse,” Chhabria said during the hearing on “general causation.”

In his July 10, 2018 order allowing the lawsuits to go to trial, the judge reiterated his view.

“[T]he evidence of a causal link between glyphosate exposure and NHL in the human population seems rather weak,” Chhabria said.

In his decision, Chhabria noted there have been numerous studies on the safety of glyphosate, the preponderance of which have found the product is safe.

“Some epidemiological studies suggest that glyphosate exposure is slightly or moderately associated with increased odds of developing NHL,” said Chhabria. “Other studies, including the largest and most recent, suggest there is no link at all. The evidence, viewed in its totality, seems too equivocal to support any firm conclusion that glyphosate causes NHL.”

Skepticism Doesn’t Stop Trial

Despite his skepticism, Chhabria found the testimony of three of the experts offered by the plaintiffs was credible enough to warrant a jury trial.

In a statement responding to Chhabria’s decision to allow the case to go forward, Monsanto’s Partridge noted the judge’s order barred testimony from two of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and “severely limited” testimony from a third.

Partridge says Monsanto will continue to defend the safety of Roundup.

“Moving forward, we will continue to defend these lawsuits with robust evidence that proves there is absolutely no connection between glyphosate and cancer,” Partridge said.

“We have sympathy for anyone suffering from cancer, but the science clearly shows that glyphosate [is] not the cause,” Partridge said.

Joe Barnett ([email protected]) writes from Arlington, Texas.