San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos is weighing whether to set aside a landmark $289 million verdict awarded to a school groundskeeper who claimed that the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killers Roundup and Ranger Pro contributed to his blood cancer. Alternatively, Judge Bolanos, who also oversaw the trial, may decide instead to reduce the award or to grant a new trial altogether.
The jury handed down the verdict Aug. 10, after deliberating three days, ultimately finding that DeWayne “Lee” Johnson’s regular exposure to Roundup and Ranger Pro was the likely cause of his non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The award included $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.
On Oct. 10, following a two-hour hearing, Judge Bolanos issued a tentative ruling saying she intended to toss the jury’s $250 million punitive award and schedule a new trial to flesh out the issue of punitive damages. She also suggested she may reduce compensatory damages by $31 million if she instead chooses to uphold the jury’s decision. Written legal arguments are due by Oct. 18, after which Judge Bolanos will make a formal decision.
Roundup and glyphosate
Monsanto introduced Roundup in 1974. It is now the most widely used herbicide in the world among farmers, groundskeepers, landscapers, horticulturalists and even home gardeners who regularly douse the product on everything from grains and vegetables, to fruit and nuts. Roundup, and Monsanto’s generic alternative Ranger Pro, contain the active ingredient glyphosate. This chemical can now be found in other herbicides, but Monsanto holds the largest share of glyphosate sales.
Glyphosate kills weeds like poison ivy, kudzu, and dandelions by blocking proteins essential to plant growth. Agricultural use of Roundup skyrocketed when crop seeds were genetically modified to make them resistant to glyphosate.
In 2015, Monsanto reaped nearly $4.76 billion in sales and $1.9 billion in gross profits from its weed killers, most prominently from Roundup. In August, Bayer AG successfully acquired Monsanto, making Bayer the sole owner of Monsanto Company.
Glyphosate and cancer
In March 2005, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer listed glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This classification was based in part on evidence dating back to 2001 that suggested a link between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and agriculture-related glyphosate exposure in the United States, Canada and Sweden.
In 2003, a study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine involving more than 3,400 Midwest farmers found that those exposed to glyphosate had higher rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Despite this evidence, Monsanto insists year after year that Roundup is safe, and consistently refuses to warn consumers of potential cancer risks on the product’s labels.
Monsanto faces more than 560 Roundup lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and an additional 8,000-plus similar cases in state courts across the country. The next Roundup trial is slated for Feb. 5, 2019; however, expedited trials have been requested in at least two other cases, including one involving an elderly couple who were both diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma they claim was caused by using Roundup.