A San Francisco jury heard opening arguments this week in a landmark case pitting a terminally ill Bay Area man against chemical giant Monsanto. Separately, but in the same city, a judge on Tuesday ruled that hundreds of lawsuits, which had stalled in federal court, also targeting the company, could proceed.
DeWayne Johnson, a father of three and former school groundskeeper, is suing Monsanto over allegations that it covered up research linking the company's weed killer Roundup to cancer.
The trial, expected to last about a month, is the first such case to go to trial among thousands of similar suits across the country. The case is notable because both sides will be permitted to make scientific arguments.
Johnson, 46, routinely applied Roundup during his employment with the Benicia school district. Lawyers for Johnson showed photos of Johnson with severe skin lesions, which they say he developed from regular exposure to Roundup. From CBS News:
He sprayed large quantities from a 50-gallon tank attached to a truck, his attorney, Brent Wisner, told jurors during his opening statement. When the wind was gusty, it would cover his face, Wisner said. When a hose broke once, it soaked his entire body.
Johnson was ultimately diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014. Doctors say he has months to live.
Monsanto is being accused of intimidating scientists and covering up research showing that glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, can cause cancer. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
He claims in his lawsuit that Monsanto not only failed to warn people about the “dangerous characteristics” of its product, but actually “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies” in a “prolonged campaign of misinformation.”
When an expert hired by the company raised concerns about the product's health risks, Wisner said the company sought to find a different expert rather than warn consumers. From the Guardian:
Wisner further cited Monsanto emails from decades prior, in which the company was working with a genotoxicity expert who reviewed a series of 1990s studies. He raised concerns about Roundup impacts on humans and suggested further areas of research. After the expert’s analyses, Monsanto representatives began considering finding a different expert and also started working on a press statement saying the product carried no risk, according to Johnson’s lawyer.
Johnson's defense pointed to a decision in 2015 by the World Health Organization to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
A number of countries have since banned or restricted the sale and use of glyphosate. In 2017, California added glyphosate to its list of carcinogens.
Pitting Science Against Science
Lawyers for Monsanto accuse Johnson’s defense of “cherrypicking” studies and counter with findings by the Environmental Protection Agency deeming the product safe to use.
They also told the jury that non-Hodgkin lymphoma takes years to develop and therefore, Johnson must have contracted the illness before he began working for the school district.
"The scientific evidence is overwhelming that glyphosate-based products do not cause cancer and did not cause Mr. Johnson's cancer," Monsanto attorney George Lombardi said in court.
A federal judge recently blocked California from requiring Monsanto to include a cancer warning label on Roundup weed killer, pointing to findings by government regulators that glyphosate is safe to use.
While the outcome of the California trial will not affect the other lawsuits, it could serve as a barometer of how the others might go.
Zen Honeycutt, the executive director of Moms Across America, a group trying to get Roundup taken off store shelves, called it the "trial of the century." From the Chronicle:
“The health, economy, and future of America depends on eliminating exposure to toxic chemical products such as Roundup,” she told the paper.
In an interview with the Guardian, Timothy Litzenburg, one of Johnson’s lawyers, called his client "incredibly brave."
"Whatever happens … his sons will get to know that their dad was brave enough to go up against Monsanto completely alone, and first, before he died."
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco wanted to determine whether the science behind the claim that Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin's lymphoma had been properly vetted before allowing it to be introduced in the trial.