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US jury orders Monsanto pay $290mn to terminally ill cancer patient in weed killer trial

Josh Edelson, AFP | Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson reacts after hearing the verdict to his case against Monsanto at the Superior Court Of California in San Francisco, California, on August 10, 2018.
5 min

A California jury on Friday ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay nearly $290 million for failing to warn a dying groundskeeper that its weed killer Roundup might cause cancer.


Jurors unanimously found that Monsanto acted with “malice” and that its weed killers Roundup and the professional grade version RangerPro contributed “substantially” to Dewayne Johnson’s terminal illness.

Bayer, the German owner of Monsanto, responded to the verdict by saying that the product is "safe" and that it will appeal the verdict.

Monsanto to appeal

“The jury got it wrong,” Monsanto’s vice president Scott Partridge told reporters outside the courthouse.

Partridge later wrote a statement on Monsanto's website: "We are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family. 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 [Edit: a generic term for weed killers] does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer. We will appeal this decision and 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.”

But Johnson’s attorney Brent Wisner said the verdict “shows the evidence is overwhelming” that the product is dangerous.

“When you are right, it is really easy to win,” he said.

Johnson, a California groundskeeper diagnosed in 2014 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma   a cancer that affects white blood cells   says he repeatedly used a generic form of RangerPro while working at a school in Benicia, California.

The lawsuit built on 2015 findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the UN World Health Organization, which classified Roundup’s main ingredient glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, causing the state of California to follow suit.

More lawsuits for Monsanto to come

Johnson’s attorney Wisner called the ruling the “tip of the spear” of litigation likely to come.

The lawsuit is the first to accuse the product of causing cancer but observers say a Monsanto defeat likely opens the door to hundreds of other claims against the company, which was recently acquired by Germany’s Bayer.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr   an environmental lawyer, son of the late US senator and a member of Johnson’s legal team   sat in the courtroom behind the dying man, who bowed his head.

“I think the verdict is going to trigger a cascade of new cases,” said Kennedy, who championed the case publicly.

“The jury sent a message to the Monsanto boardroom that they have to change the way they do business.”

Monsanto’s vice president Partridge said outside the courthouse that the company had no intention of settling the slew of similar cases in the legal queue, saying if anything the verdict would prompt the company to work harder to demonstrate the weed killer is safe.

“It is the most widely used and most widely studied herbicide in the world,” Partridge said. “The verdict today does not change the science.”

‘Win for all humanity’

Before jurors went to deliberate, Johnson’s attorney Wisner asked that they deliver a “day of reckoning” for Monsanto.

“The science finally caught up, where they couldn’t bury it anymore,” Wisner told the jury in his closing argument.

Roundup is Monsanto’s leading product and glyphosate is reportedly the world’s most commonly used weed killer.

“The Johnson versus Monsanto verdict is a win for all of humanity and all life on earth,” said Zen Honeycutt, founding executive director of non-profit group ‘Moms Across America’.

“The majority of our illnesses and losses to soil quality, water, wildlife and marine life are due to toxic chemicals, particularly Monsanto’s most widely used glyphosate herbicides like Roundup and Ranger Pro.

Monsanto have consistently denied the product has any link to the disease, but the controversy has already damaged the company’s reputation.

Records unsealed earlier by a federal court lent credence to Johnson’s claims - internal company emails with regulators suggested Monsanto had ghostwritten research later attributed to academics.

Monsanto’s Roundup has been on the market since 1976, and the company has also created genetically modifying plants with some being resistant to Roundup.

Monsanto was one of the companies that produced the defoliant “Agent Orange” - which has been linked to cancer and other diseases for use by US forces in Vietnam.

The company denies any responsibility for how the military used the product.

Founded in 1901 in St Louis, Missouri, Monsanto was acquired by Bayer for more than $62 billion in June.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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