The first trial on whether the world’s most widely used herbicide causes cancer ended this past week with a California jury’s award of USD$289 million in damages to a former school groundskeeper diagnosed with a lethal cancer linked to a Monsanto-produced weed-killer.
The San Francisco jury found unanimously that Monsanto was responsible for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and should have known of the dangers posed by the herbicide glyphosate, which it markets under brand names Roundup and Ranger Pro. The jury also found that Monsanto had “acted with malice or oppression” when it supplied glyphosate to Johnson’s employer, the Benicia Unified School District, without disclosing its potentially life-threatening effects.
Johnson’s case, the first to go to trial, could be a forerunner for more than 4,000 lawsuits that have been filed across America by individuals claiming they were sickened by Monsanto products. Johnson was a groundskeeper and pest-control manager from 2012 until May 2016. His job included spraying glyphosate, in the high-concentration brand called Ranger Pro, from 50-gallon drums 20 to 30 times a year for two to three hours a day.
He was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014 and with a more aggressive form of the cancer a year later. One of his doctors testified that he is unlikely to survive to 2020.
Jurors deliberated 2½ days following one month of testimony. The verdict required votes from only nine of the 12 jurors to be final, but they were unanimous except for on the amount of punitive damages, which drew a dissent from one juror. In polling after the verdict, she did not tell the judge whether she favored a greater or lesser amount.
The jury’s decision also amounted to a rebuke of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has long classified glyphosate as safe and has not restricted its use, despite other agencies’ findings that the herbicide probably causes cancer. The World Health Organisation reported that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” but despite that finding, the European Commission recently granted the substance another five-year licence.
“I’m glad to be here to be able to help, the cause is way bigger than me. Hopefully, this thing will get the attention it needs so folks can make a good choice,” said 46-year-old Johnson after the verdict.
Monsanto – which is reported to have $6.1 billion in holdings – was unyielding, stating its position is supported by the EPA, the National Institutes of Health and agencies around the world.
“We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use,” said Scott Partridge, a Monsanto vice president.
Glyphosate, the world’s leading herbicide, was classified as a probable human carcinogen in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization. In 2017, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment listed it as a chemical known to cause cancer. Monsanto held the initial patent and remains its leading distributor.
Despite the agencies’ health concerns, glyphosate remains legal in the U.S. and Europe.