Jurors on Aug. 10 found in favor of a school groundskeeper who claimed his use of a Monsanto weedkiller caused his blood cancer, but the case is far from over as appeals are certain.
“I think this is not the end of the story,” said Jean Eggen, a distinguished emerita professor of law at Widener University Delaware Law School, and author of the book “Toxic Torts in a Nutshell.” “A lot of how this gets resolved depends on what happens on appeal.”
The jury awarded Johnson $250 million in punitive damages, plus more than $35 million in compensatory damages for past and future economic and noneconomic losses.
The trial is considered a bellwether case, because it is the first to go forward against Monsanto for health claims, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who along with R. Brent Wisner’s firm represents 700 other plaintiffs in similar cases, told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s so important for what happens in all the cases,” Kennedy, a partner with Kennedy & Madonna LLP in Hurley, N.Y., added.
At the heart of the case is Dewayne Lee Johnson, a former school groundskeeper who blames his non-Hodgkin lymphoma on exposure to Ranger Pro when he worked spraying fields and grounds for the Benicia Unified School District outside San Francisco from 2012 to 2016.
Monsanto, which manufactures Ranger Pro and Roundup, didn’t properly warn users of the risks, said Johnson’s attorney Wisner, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman PC. Johnson, he said, won’t live to 2020 “absent a miracle.”
Wisner sought $412 million in damages, including $39 million for economic and emotional damages and loss of future earnings. The punitive damages were high, he said, to get the company to change its practices.
With so many cases pending, this trial verdict could change how Monsanto moves forward.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more cases coming in,” Kennedy said. “It puts a lot of pressure on Monsanto to settle.”
And while the ruling won’t set precedent for other cases, attorneys with similar cases may chose to model their case based on Johnson’s, Eggen said.
As for the business, that could take time to see.
Monsanto sells seeds and manufactures the popular Roundup and Ranger Pro, which have glyphosate as their active ingredient. The company’s revenue in 2017 was $14.6 billion, according to Bloomberg data. The German pharmaceutical firm Bayer bought the St. Louis-based company for $63 billion in June.
The seed side is a bigger part of the business model than the herbicides, Perrella said.
“It would take years for it to have a commercial impact on the company,” he said. “I think it’s probably business as usual until these cases play out.”
The trial began July 9, and jurors at the California Superior Court in San Francisco saw more than 270 exhibits, including photos, emails, complicated studies, and deposition transcripts. But like most toxic tort cases, it came down to whether causation could be proven, Eggen said.
Pivotal to the case was whether exposure to the active ingredient glyphosate caused the cancer. Johnson’s team said yes, while Monsanto’s said no.
Two other firms have an estimated 3,400 cases against the company in California. All claim that exposure to Roundup or associated Monsanto products have caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“This is just the opening round in lots of cases,” Christopher Perrella, a chemical analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, told Bloomberg Environment.
The case is Johnson v. Monsanto Co., Cal. Super. Ct., No. CGC-16-550128, verdict, 8/10/18.