A US jury’s US$289 million ($440m) award to a former school groundskeeper who said Monsanto’s Roundup left him dying of cancer will bolster thousands of pending cases and open the door for countless people who blame their suffering on the weed killer, the man’s lawyers said.
“I’m glad to be here to be able to help in a cause that’s way bigger than me,” Dewayne Johnson said at a news conference on Friday (Saturday NZ time) after the verdict was announced.
Johnson, 46, alleges that heavy contact with the herbicide caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The state Superior Court jury agreed that Roundup contributed to Johnson’s cancer and Monsanto should have provided a label warning of the potential health hazard.
Johnson thanked jurors “from the bottom of my heart” for their work, along with his lawyers and his family.
His was the first case filed by a cancer patient against the agribusiness giant to reach trial. It was expedited because court filings indicated that Johnson was dying. His victory may set the precedent for many others.
“A unanimous jury in San Francisco has told Monsanto: ‘Enough. You did something wrong and now you have to pay’,” said Brent Wisner, Johnson’s lead trial lawyer.
“There’s 4000 other cases filed around the United States and there are countless thousand other people out there who are suffering from cancer because Monsanto didn’t give them a choice… We now have a way forward.”
Monsanto has denied a link between the active ingredient in Roundup – glyphosate – and cancer, saying hundreds of studies have established that glyphosate is safe.
Monsanto spokesman Scott Partridge said the company will appeal. Partridge said scientific studies and two government agencies have concluded that Roundup does not cause cancer.
“We are sympathetic to Mr Johnson and his family,” Partridge said. “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.”
Johnson used Roundup and a similar product, Ranger Pro, as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, his lawyers said. He sprayed large quantities from a 50-gallon tank attached to a truck, and during gusty winds, the product would cover his face, said Brent Wisner, one of his attorneys.
Once, when a hose broke, the weed killer soaked his entire body.
Johnson read the label and even contacted the company after developing a rash but was never warned it could cause cancer, Wisner said. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014.
“The simple fact is he is going to die. It’s just a matter of time,” Wisner told the jury in his opening statement last month.
But George Lombardi, an attorney for Monsanto, said non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma takes years to develop, so Johnson’s cancer must have started well before he began working at the school district.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says Roundup’s active ingredient is safe for people when used in accordance with label directions.
However, the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organisation, classified it as a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015. California added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
Johnson’s attorneys sought and won US$39 million in compensatory damages and US$250 million of the US$373 million they wanted in punitive damages.