A jury in San Francisco has awarded a former groundskeeper fighting terminal cancer $289 million in damages against Monsanto, the maker of the world’s most popular weed killer, Roundup. CNN recently reported that “Dewayne Johnson's victory Friday could set a massive precedent for thousands of other cases claiming Monsanto's famous herbicide causes non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.”
Johnson was able to bring his case to trial first, because he was near death, and California grants dying plaintiffs expedited trials. The jury took three days to deliberate before reaching a verdict, which ordered Monsanto to pay $250 million in punitive damages and about $39 million in compensatory damages. Monsanto promised to appeal the decision, and the company continues its vigorous defense of its product, by citing studies that suggest no link between Roundup and cancer. An unsuccessful appeal could be costly for the company, which would have to pay interest on the award during that time, estimated at $25 million a year.
In his work as a groundskeeper for a school district, Johnson applied Roundup 20 to 30 times per year. He testified he had two accidents, starting in 2012, in which he was soaked with the product. In 2014, Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Just 46 years old, Johnson is the father of two boys.
The questions raised in the case were whether Roundup can cause cancer and, if so, whether Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the product's cancer risk. Although the jury sided with Johnson on both issues, scientific evidence is not mixed. In March 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found that Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate, is "probably carcinogenic to humans," but found “there was limited evidence” pointing to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Monsanto points to other scientific evidence to defend its product, saying that “More than 800 scientific studies, the US EPA, the National Institutes of Health and regulators around the world have concluded that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer." But Johnson’s attorney stressed that the problem may not be with glyphosate, but with Roundup. According to CNN, he claims that “the interaction between glyphosate and other ingredients in Roundup cause a ‘synergistic effect’ that makes the product more carcinogenic.” Monsanto disputes this claim as well, saying that regulatory authorities have evaluated and approved the “pesticide formulation.”
Cancer cases are notoriously hard to prove. They are not exactly like car accidents, where you know the crash directly caused a broken bone. Plus, lymphoma cases tend to be idiopathic, meaning their causes are generally unknowable. Fortunately for Mr. Johnson, he only had to prove Roundup was a "substantial contributing factor" to his cancer. And he did not have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, but only by a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, he had to show that his version of the cause was more likely to be true than not.
Currently, Monsanto faces more than 4,000 similar cases in various state courts and another 400 cases in federal multidistrict litigation.
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