By Logan Quirk
The Monsanto lawsuit, involving Roundup, one of the company’s most widely-used weed killers, continues to make waves in the legal, agricultural and scientific sectors. The weed killer has been in use since the 1970s. However, its aftereffects have only been identified of late.
As a result, three cases had been brought to court. These lawsuits, closely followed by the media and the public, have resulted in courtroom losses for Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer AG in June 2018.
One of the three highly publicized lawsuits against Monsanto involves Dewayne Johnson, a former school groundskeeper for a public school district in Benicia, Solano Country, California. He worked as an integrated pest manager starting 2012. His responsibilities included spraying Roundup and Ranger Pro (also a Monsanto herbicide containing glyphosate) in sports fields and certain schools in the area. He claimed that he would sometimes spray about 150 gallons of these products over several hours.
Johnson said he wore protective gear while working as a precaution. However, occasional leaks did occur, and he was even accidentally drenched on one occasion. Despite this, he didn’t feel overly concerned about the possible ill effects of these Monsanto products, as there were no warnings on the product labels. He even said that, during a product training session, he was told that the product (Roundup) was “safe enough to drink.”
In spite of the product safety claims, Johnson said he religiously followed label instructions and reviewed them every time he used them to spray the property he was working on. However, in 2014, after about two years of regularly using Roundup, he began to have rashes, as well as skin irritation. He also began to notice lesions all over his body and marks on his face.
The frightful diagnosis of terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma finally came, and doctors say that Johnson, now in his late forties and a father of three, may only have months to live.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a type of blood cancer affecting the immune system. It caused Johnson’s skin sensitivities and lesions. Needless to say, he has been in serious pain, which has sometimes prevented him from walking or staying outside in the sun. Sometimes the pain became so intense he could not even bear the touch of fabric on his skin.
Cancer affected everything in Johnson’s life – including marriage to his wife, Araceli. His cancer sometimes prevented him from having sexual relations with his wife. He also couldn’t be employed anymore, and was, at one point, almost entirely bedridden for a month. As a consequence, Araceli had to work two jobs – at a nursing home and a local school district – sometimes logging 14-hour days.
Johnson couldn’t understand how he could have gotten cancer. What he did was to uncover the truth. He did some research and found that glyphosate has, indeed, been linked in some studies to cancer.
Johnson finally took Monsanto to trial in August 2018. He received a $78 million payout when the California jury concluded that Johnson’s prolonged use and exposure to Roundup led to him developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The original award was $289 million, but was slashed down to $78 million by the judge on October 22.
Another Monsanto Roundup trial went to court in March 2019. This time, the plaintiff, 70-year-old Edwin Hardeman, a long-term user of Roundup, used the product to spray his property in Gualala (three years of use), and in his 56-acre property in Santa Rosa (around 25 years of use).
Starting in 1986, Hardeman said he would spray his property three to four hours per session once a month. There were times, he said, when the chemical would get blown onto his skin, and he felt he was breathing in the chemical. He stopped using Roundup in 2012. However, in 2015, on Christmas Day, he found a swollen lymph node on his neck. He was diagnosed with NHL the following year.
Hardeman was ultimately awarded about $80 million in damages by the jury, an amount recently reduced to $25 million – totalling $5 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages amounting to $20 million.
Alva and Alberta Pilliod
The most recent case against Monsanto was filed by Alva (age 77) and Alberta (age 75) Pilliod, both of whom are California residents. The couple had been using Roundup at their home and other properties since the 1970s.
Alva and Alberta have both been diagnosed with NHL. Alva was diagnosed with systemic NHL which spread to his pelvis and spine in 2011. Alberta got her NHL brain cancer diagnosis in 2015. The couple are in remission but undergoing maintenance chemotherapy. Alberta said they believed in the claims of Roundup as harmless to humans and wildlife, and so they never used protective gear or masks when using it.
The pain of suffering from cancer and the life changes that came with their diagnoses had been unbearable. Moreover, if Alberta’s cancer recurs, doctors said that she may develop deep brain lesions that can prove fatal.
Ultimately, the Alameda County jury awarded Alva and Alberta Pilliod $2.055 billion in punitive and compensatory damages. Monsanto has been ordered to pay the Pilliods after the couple developed NHL believed to have been caused by years of exposure to the chemical glyphosate – an active ingredient in Roundup.
Glyphosate and Roundup
Glyphosate is a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed-killing product, Roundup. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, glyphosate is also the most popular herbicide used in the United States.
Monsanto began marketing the chemical as Roundup in 1974. The herbicide was presented as a technological breakthrough in agriculture and it was claimed Roundup could kill almost every type of weed without posing any health risks to humans, or any danger to the environment.
Roundup products are distributed in 130 countries. They are also approved for use on over a hundred crops. Because of its widespread applications, glyphosate has been found in food, water sources and the urine of agricultural workers.
Over the years, however, research has linked the herbicide with serious harm. In a 2015 monograph on glyphosate published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization – glyphosate was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bayer/Monsanto still insist that the substance glyphosate is harmless to humans. In fact, the EPA released a statement on April 30, 2019, that the “EPA continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”
Even the US Secretary of Agriculture Sunny Purdue said that glyphosate Is a necessity in agriculture, saying “If we are going to feed 10 billion people by 2050, we are going to need all the tools at our disposal, which includes the use the glyphosate.”
However, the fact remains that unsealed court documents and emails presented during the Pilliod case show that Monsanto had taken steps to conceal information about the health risks posed by glyphosate. These included correspondence between Monsanto executives and a former Environmental Protection Agency director Jess Rowland where they discussed the need to keep negative results of glyphosate studies out of publications.
Roundup and cancer
Studies have shown that glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup, has been linked to a number of serious health conditions, including cancer.
Despite current pronouncements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), glyphosate was classified as a Group C chemical, by the EPA in 1985 after determining that it could possibly be carcinogenic to humans. This classification was supported by animal testing and by subsequent data showing the increased incidence of cancer in mice exposed to glyphosate.
However, the EPA changed its stance in 1991. Monsanto heavily lobbied for a change in the classification of glyphosate, arguing against its status carcinogenic substance and petitioning the EPA to re-evaluate the results of the animal studies and re-classify glyphosate as a Group E chemical. This re-classification would indicate that there was no evidence that glyphosate herbicides are carcinogenic to humans, thereby making Roundup a harmless agro-chemical designed to simply kill weeds. The re-classification took place, and soon after, Monsanto launched their Roundup-Ready seeds – an ultimately highly lucrative product earning the company an extra $6 billion a year.
History shows that Monsanto has always gone to great lengths to influence studies and experiments involving its products; in this case, Roundup:
- Early 1970s: Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT) was hired by Monsanto to study toxicity levels in Roundup. IBT conducted 30 different tests on Roundup, including nine of the original 15 studies conducted to register glyphosate with the EPA. However, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted an inspection of IBT in 1976, it was discovered that there were discrepancies between the raw data actually obtained in the studies and what was presented in the final report on the toxicological effects of glyphosate, as submitted to the EPA. This subsequently led to an EPA audit, which in turn led to three top IBT executives being convicted of fraud in 1983.
- 1991: Craven Laboratories was hired by Monsanto to conduct studies on different pesticides and herbicides, including Roundup. That same year, the owner of Craven Laboratories along with three of its employees were indicted for fraudulent lab practices.
- 1996: A lawsuit involving Roundup was filed by the New York Attorney General. It involved Monsanto’s false claims that Roundup, the weed killer, was ‘practically non-toxic” and “safer than table salt.” The outcome of this lawsuit was that Monsanto agreed to get rid of the false claims in its Roundup advertisements within the state of New York. However, since the lawsuit agreement was limited to New York state, the false marketing tactics used by Monsanto regarding Roundup continued in other US states.
Impact of the lawsuits against Monsanto Roundup
Despite Monsanto’s consistent denial regarding the ill effects of glyphosate and its being a carcinogen, the impact of the first three successful lawsuits against Monsanto could affect future litigation and possible settlements.
As mentioned earlier, Monsanto has been acquired by German pharmaceutical company Bayer for $88 billion. Bayer already experienced a 30 percent drop in share value after the Johnson verdict. Monsanto still faces more than 9,000 similar lawsuits or personal injury cases across the country.
These well-publicized court rulings against Monsanto have led to further inquiries into the potential health hazards posed by glyphosate, and have sparked regulatory debates worldwide.
Monsanto/Bayer’s patent for glyphosate expired in 2000, so other companies (mostly based in China) are now also able to produce glyphosate. It has been in use in the agricultural industry in some countries, while some communities in at least 13 states in the US have already restricted or banned the use of the chemical.
California, in a landmark move, became the first state to issue a warning about glyphosate in July 2017. And, as required by the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, glyphosate has since been added to the state’s list of carcinogenic chemicals.
Glyphosate has also been restricted in 28 countries around the globe starting March 2019. About 66 percent of respondents in a 2016 poll in the European Union had the five largest countries supporting a ban on glyphosate products.
If the controversies regarding the use of glyphosate in agricultural products continues, the rest of the world can no longer afford to ignore the need to find good alternatives. Continued inquiries into the shady marketing tactics of companies can also ignite similar lawsuits involving, not only false science but also false advertising.
The impacts of these rulings against a giant like Monsanto will be felt for generations, even as the company seeks to evade the verdicts and counter the claims of the victims of these well-known cases.
If you have a case similar to this or directly involving Roundup by Monsanto, and require legal representation, get in touch with the Quirk Law Group.