Jurors give $289 million to a man they say got cancer from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller

By Michael Klugey
Jurors give $289 million to a man they say got cancer from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller
Jurors give $289 million to a man they say got cancer from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller

San Francisco jurors just ruled that that Roundup, the most popular weedkiller in the world, gave a former school groundskeeper terminal cancer. 

So they awarded him $289 million in damages -- mostly to punish the agricultural company, Monsanto.

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's case was the first to go to trial because doctors said he was near death. And in California, dying plaintiffs can be granted expedited trials.

CNN reported last year that more than 800 patients were suing Monsanto, claiming Roundup gave them cancer.

Since then, hundreds more plaintiffs -- including cancer patients, their spouses or their estates -- have also sued Monsanto, making similar claims.

"He's going to live the rest of that time in extreme comfort," Litzenburg said.

After the verdict, Monsanto issued a statement saying it stands by the studies that suggest Roundup does not cause 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," Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge said.

But Litzenburg said an appeal would be costly for Monsanto since the company would have to pay interest on the damages while the case is being appealed. That's about $25 million a year, he said.

Litzenburg said the most heartbreaking part of Johnson's testimony was when the father of two described telling his sons that he had terminal cancer. Johnson's wife now works two 40-hour-per-week jobs to support the family, Litzenburg said.

How carcinogenic (or not) are Roundup and glyphosate?

The big questions at stake were whether Roundup can cause cancer and, if so, whether Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the product's cancer risk. The jury sided with Johnson on both.

In March 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said the key ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is "probably carcinogenic to humans."

"For the herbicide glyphosate, there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma," the report states.

But Monsanto has long maintained that Roundup does not cause cancer and that the IARC report is greatly outnumbered by studies saying glyphosate is safe.

"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," said Partridge, Monsanto's vice president of strategy.

He highlighted the Agricultural Health Study, which studied the effects of pesticides and glyphosate products on farmers and their spouses from 1993 to 2013.

"Many had already been using Roundup and other formulated products (since) it first came on the market," Partridge said.

A summary of that study said "no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma)."

"We all have sympathy for Mr. Johnson," Partridge said this week. "It's natural he's looking for answers. Glyphosate is not the answer."

But Litzenburg said glyphosate isn't the big problem -- Roundup is. He said the interaction between glyphosate and other ingredients in Roundup cause a "synergistic effect" that makes the product more carcinogenic.

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord disputed that notion, saying regulatory authorities help ensure Roundup as a whole is safe.

"The safety of each labelled use of a pesticide formulation must be evaluated and approved by regulatory authorities before it is authorized for sale," she said.

But Litzenburg said Friday's verdict should be a huge wake-up call to the EPA.

"I think it's going to make people sit up and make government agencies take a closer look at banning (Roundup)," Litzenburg said.

Credit: cnn.com