The Monsanto Cancer Court Case Begins

Opening arguments began on July 9 in San Francisco for yet another lawsuit about Monsanto’s deadly glyphosate-laced herbicides. What makes this one different is it puts a living victim of the deadly chemical against the agribusiness giant for the very first time.

Monsanto's Roundup Weedkiller product. Photo: Mike Mozart, CC.

Glyphosate is the key herbicide ingredient in, among other things, Monsanto’s famous Roundup weed killer line of products. Monsanto’s Genetically-Modified Crops (GMOs) have been engineered to resist glyphosate, so farmers who buy the company’s patented GMO seeds can feel free to pour on the glyphosate without fear their food crops will not continue to grow. Such crops have many other liabilities about them and they also absorb the poisonous glyphosate chemicals. Those chemicals appear not just in the crops but in a wide variety of processed foods using the GMOs.

Because glyphosate is also a powerful weed killer on its own, it and the brand name product Roundup that Monsanto sells are also in wide use just to keep unwanted growths at bay in any landscape. Many reading this may have used Roundup themselves to eliminate grass, dandelions and other growths popping up in between concrete slabs in driveways, along tiled walkways, and in children’s play areas.

The case being tried now in San Francisco involves 46-year old DeWayne “Lee” Johnson, a former groundskeeper for a school district in California who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. His job required him to apply two different Monsanto products containing glyphosate for years. He blames Monsanto and glyphosate for his illness.

He is also dying from the cancer without any hope of a cure. He is a father of three and will never see his children grow up.

Johnson’s position about Monsanto’s glyphosate being tied to cancer are backed by both the state of California and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Both have classified glyphosate, the most common herbicide chemical in the world, as a probable human carcinogen.

The IARC report, which was released in 2015, involved a review of evidence linking Roundup and glyphosate to cancer. 17 oncology experts representing 11 countries reviewed that evidence. They concluded there was some evidence that the herbicide could cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma in humans. They also found “convincing evidence” that it could cause other kinds of cancer in mice and rats. In direct support of what Johnson is alleging, the researchers said that glyphosate was found in the urine and blood of agricultural workers. It shows that those who are around the chemical on a regular basis will absorb it.

During the case opening statements, Brent Wisner, Johnson’s attorney, displayed photos of lesions on his client’s body, lesions caused by Johnson’s cancer. “The simple fact is he’s going to die. It’s just a matter of time,” Wisner said. “Between now and then, it’s just nothing but pain.”

In the courtroom, Wisner also pointed out that Monsanto “has specifically gone out of its way to bully… and to fight… independent researchers.” It is well-documented elsewhere how Monsanto went out of its way to hire third parties to attack and manipulate valid research showing the toxic nature of its product. In court documents Wisner filed, he also said that there is “a mountain of data” going back 18 years, showing that exposure to glyphosate can cause genetic damage that could lead to non-Hodkins lymphoma.

As Wisner’s co-counsel Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said recently in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’re going to see for the first time evidence that nobody has seen before, evidence that has been in Monsanto’s files that we’ve obtained from lawyers and the people in Monsanto. I don’t think it’s a surprise after 20 years Monsanto has known about the cancer-causing properties of this chemical and has tried to stop the public from knowing it, and tried to manipulate the regulatory process.” Kennedy went on to say what this litigation discloses would help many other hundreds of clients he is also representing in cases filed against Monsanto. “So many people have been exposed to this chemical, this group of chemicals, and many of them have been injured. The science is on our side. It is mountainous.”

That evidence may be of immediate use to many others besides just Kennedy’s case. While Johnson’s case had its first day in court, in parallel U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco gave a green light to allow hundreds of other cases like Johnson’s to go to trial. In that ruling, while he said the evidence he had reviewed “seems too equivocal to support that glyphosate” causes cancer, he agreed that the matters should be presented for juries to decide. That decision came after weeks of hearings and many years of litigation against Monsanto.

 In total, some 4,000 plaintiffs have filed cases alleging that Monsanto’s glyphosate chemicals caused cancer or other illnesses. Johnson’s just happens to be the first to go to trial. It will be watched carefully by all those plaintiffs, their lawyers, regulatory bodies, and Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer.