On August 12, 2018, San Francisco jurors ruled in favour of Dewayne Lee Johnson against agricultural giant Monsanto, awarding him $250 million in punitive damages and $39 million in compensatory damages.
Many legal experts believe that Johnson’s triumph could set a precedent for thousands other cases like his.
Months to Live
Johnson, a 46-year old father of two, sued Monsanto over their product Roundup, which he claims gave him cancer. According to Johnson, he applied the popular weedkiller – sometimes 100 gallons a day – between 20 to 30 times a year for two and a half years as part of his job as a groundskeeper for the Benicia School District. He had two accidents in which he was soaked by the chemical, the first of which happened in 2012. Two years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Today as much as 80% of his body is covered with lesions.
Doctors don’t expect Johnson to live for very long; in fact, they didn’t think he’d live to have his day in court. In California, expedited trials are granted to dying plaintiffs, which is why his was the first case to go to trial among the initial 2,000++ other lawsuits claiming that Roundup causes non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.
Johnson and his lawyers assert that Monsanto knew about the dangers of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – particularly when combined with other ingredients and suppressed evidence of those dangers.
“I never would’ve sprayed that product on school grounds or around people if I knew it would cause them harm,” said Johnson when he testified in court.
What is Glyophosate?
Glyphosate is an herbicide used to kill weeds, specifically annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops. It works by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5- enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSP) that is essential to plant growth.
Monsanto maintains that since this enzyme is not found in humans or animals, there is “low risk to human and animal health” when using glyphosate-based products according to label directions.”
The controversy surrounding this case is compounded by the contradictory results from studies conducted on glyphosate.
Recently acquired by Bayer, Monsanto has long held the position that glyphosate-based herbicides, which includes Roundup, do not pose serious risks to human health when used according to usage guidelines. They have cited the more than 800 studies that have been published, including one from the Environmental Protection Agency, which have stated that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer.
However, in an independent study published in March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, stating there was “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma”. The report also goes on to state that “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” The WHO’s study was prompted by other independent peer-reviewed studies that have documented the dangers of glyphosate.
The IARC report has spurred hundreds of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients to sue Monsanto, claiming their illness is due to exposure to Roundup.
The National Pesticide Information Center recognises that there is a conflict of reports associating the use of glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma saying that, “when high doses were administered to laboratory animals, some studies suggest that glyphosate has carcinogenic potential. Studies on cancer rates in people have provided conflicting results on whether the use of glyphosate-containing products is associated with cancer. Some studies have associated glyphosate use with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
A “Synergistic Effect”
Monsanto staunchly stands by its statement that glyphosate is safe and does not cause cancer. But according to Timothy Litzenburg, one of Johnson’s attorneys, Roundup is the big problem, not just glyphosate. He stated that the interaction of the chemicals found in the product together with glyphosate creates a “synergistic effect”, making it more carcinogenic.
Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman, on the other hand, said that regulatory bodies are in place to ensure that their product is safe for consumers.
Burden of Proof
Can Roundup cause cancer? If so, did Monsanto “fail to exercise reasonable care to warn of the dangerous risks associated with use and exposure”? These were the two questions that Johnson’s legal team sought to prove during the trial. In the end, the jury’s verdict was a resounding ‘Yes’.
At first glance, the case seemed like a steep uphill climb for the plaintiff. The odds were stacked against them: a man dying of cancer facing a massive, well-known agrochemical corporation with hundreds of scientific literature affirming the safety of glyphosate use to back them up. However, Johnson’s lawyers did not need to prove that Roundup was the only cause of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that it contributed substantially to his illness.
Additionally, whilst it was nearly impossible for Johnson’s attorneys to prove that glyphosate – and Roundup – caused his cancer, it was also nearly impossible for Monsanto’s attorneys to prove that it did not.
More Cases to Come
Johnson’s win creates a momentum for the thousands of other cases against Monsanto waiting to be tried. As of this writing, the number of people stricken with cancer allegedly caused by Roundup to have filed lawsuits against the company has grown to 8,000.
According to Litzenburg, more than half of their clients are composed of those who sprayed Roundup for school districts and parks and others are individuals who sprayed the product around their homes.
A Bittersweet Victory
Whilst the money will never make up for not seeing his children grow, Johnson can at least have peace of mind that his family will be taken care of even after he’s gone. His wife, Araceli Johnson, a nurse practitioner, has had to take on two jobs to support them.
The jury’s decision to award Johnson with $250 million in punitive damages delivers the message for which he fought the case: Monsanto should be held accountable for knowingly burying evidence of the dangers posed by glyphosate. Corporations, big or small, should properly label their products so as to give consumers the opportunity to make informed decisions about whether or not to use them, and how to properly use them to minimise risks.