Monsanto has been hit with $289m in damages after a jury in San Francisco ruled that a former school groundskeeper’s terminal cancer had been caused by a popular weedkiller produced by the US seeds and chemicals group.
The outcome of the trial is a headache for German conglomerate Bayer, which acquired Monsanto for $62.5bn in a deal that closed in June. It could potentially pave the way for thousands of other claims.
Bayer was vilified by environmentalists when it announced its bid for Monsanto in 2016, largely because of the US company’s associations with genetically modified foods. In June Bayer announced it would drop the name Monsanto after completing its takeover of the company. The deal created the world’s largest producer of seeds and pesticides.
After deliberating for three days, jurors at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California found that Monsanto had failed to warn Dewayne Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers. It awarded him $39m in compensatory and $250m in punitive damages.
Mr Johnson claimed that his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, was caused by Monsanto weedkillers Roundup and Ranger Pro, which both contain the chemical glyphosate. Mr Johnson, 46, who worked for a school district in Benicia, about 40 miles east of San Francisco, applied the weed killer up to 30 times per year. He testified that during his work as a school groundskeeper he had two accidents in which he was soaked with Roundup. In 2014, two years after the first accident, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and in July 2017, after chemotherapy and other treatments, his doctors gave him six months to live.
This made Mr Johnson’s case the first against glyphosate to go to trial because dying plaintiffs can be granted expedited trials in California.
Monsanto said it would appeal against the verdict. “Today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews — and conclusions by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world — support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr Johnson’s cancer,” Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement.
Monsanto said it would “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”.
Brent Wisner, a lawyer for Mr Johnson, said jurors for the first time had seen internal company documents “proving that Monsanto has known for decades that glyphosate and specifically Roundup could cause cancer”.
“Despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to require labelling, we are proud that an independent jury followed the evidence and used its voice to send a message to Monsanto that its years of deception regarding Roundup is over and that they should put consumer safety first over profits,” Mr Wisner said in a statement after the verdict.
Another lawyer for Mr Johnson said there were more than 4,000 similar cases awaiting trial in various state courts.
Monsanto argued in court that science had found no connection between Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Glyphosate was first approved for use in 1974 and quickly became the world’s most popular and widely used herbicide. But scientists and environmentalists have long argued over whether it causes cancer.
The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded in 2015 that there was “limited evidence” that glyphosate was carcinogenic in humans. But Monsanto has highlighted the Agricultural Health Study, which analysed the effects of pesticides and glyphosate products on farmers and their spouses from 1993 to 2013 and concluded that “no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumours or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma).”
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