A lawyer for a California groundskeeper dying of cancer took aim at Monsanto Monday as a jury began hearing the lawsuit accusing the chemical giant of ignoring health risks of its top-selling weed killer Roundup.
"For the past 40 years, Monsanto has known the primary ingredient in Roundup can produce tumors in lab animals," attorney Brent Wisner told a California state court, as a jury is hearing the case brought by Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father of two. "Monsanto has gone out of its way to bully scientists and fight researchers," he told the jury.
Diagnosed in 2014 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer that affects white blood cells, Johnson used a Monsanto generic version of Roundup called "Ranger Pro" repeatedly in his job at a school in Benicia, California, after being promoted to groundskeeper in 2012.
In his opening statement, Wisner said Monsanto opted against warning consumers of the risks and that instead "they have fought science" by playing down the suspected link between the chemical herbicide and cancer.
The case in California Superior Court is the first trial in which Roundup is said to have caused cancer, a claim repeatedly denied by the chemical company. If Monsanto loses, the case could open the door to hundreds of additional lawsuits against the company recently acquired by German-based pharmaceutical and chemical group Bayer.
Johnson had little warning about the risks of Roundup, his lawyer said. "He was told you could drink it, it was completely non-toxic," Wisner said with his client sitting in the San Francisco courtroom. "You will hear testimony from him that he got drenched in it, repeatedly." The lawyer said Johnson, who is between rounds of chemotherapy, "is actually on borrowed time, he is not supposed to be alive today."
According to Johnson's defense, Monsanto's pesticide — whose main ingredient is glyphosate — is responsible for his illness. Wisner contended glyphosate combined with an ingredient intended to help it spread over leaves in a cancer-causing "synergy."
"The scientific evidence is overwhelming that glyphosate-based products do not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson's cancer," responded Monsanto defense attorney George Lombardi.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr — an environmental lawyer, son of the late US senator, and a member of Johnson's legal team — sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery. "I don't think it's a surprise that Monsanto tried to stop the public from knowing about it, and tried to manipulate the regulatory process," Kennedy told reporters outside court.
Kennedy said his law firm has 700 clients "in the pipeline" with Roundup cancer cases. When asked how much money he thought Johnson should get from Monsanto, Kennedy questioned whether US$50 million or US$100 million would even be enough.
Founded in 1901 in St Louis, Missouri, Monsanto began producing agrochemicals in the 1940s. It was acquired by Bayer for more than US$62 billion in June. Monsanto was one of the companies which produced the defoliant "Agent Orange," which has been linked to cancer and other diseases, for use by U.S. forces in Vietnam. It denies responsibility for how the military used it.
Monsanto's flagship herbicide Roundup was launched in 1976. The company soon thereafter began genetically modifying plants, making some resistant to Roundup. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — a World Health Organization body — classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic," and as a result, the state of California listed it as carcinogenic.
European food safety and chemicals agencies have so far not followed suit.