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Monsanto found liable of causing a school groundskeeper’s cancer
On August 10, 2018, a San Francisco jury awarded Dewayne Johnson, a former school groundskeeper, $289 million on account of Monsanto’s Roundup ‘weedkiller’ causing terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This verdict included $39 million in compensation for Johnson’s family, but also $250 million in punitive damages to castigate Monsanto for knowingly selling Roundup without proper warning.
Having experienced two accidents in which his body was doused in the herbicide, Johnson testified it was components in Roundup that led to his diagnosis of lymphoma in 2014. As Johnson’s attorneys explained in court, glyphosate—the active main ingredient in Roundup—was classified as a probable human carcinogen in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Additionally, several internal Monsanto documents suggested that the company knew that glyphosate was dangerous, leading to the harsh sentence in punitive damages.
However, as Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement, “more than 800 scientific studies and reviews and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer.” Thus,Monsanto sought to appeal, which came to a head when Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos chose to partially overturn the verdict, reducing the award for punitive damages to $39 million, a whole $211 million less than originally ruled by the jury.
This decision came even after a unanimous decision by the jury that Roundup caused Johnson’s cancer, even with conflicting scientific evidence. Several jurors believed so strongly in their decision that they wrote to the judge not to accept Monsanto’s appeal.
With the ball in his court, Dewayne Johnson had to make the decision as to whether he would accept the reduced rewards or whether he wanted to bring Monsanto back to trial. On October 26, Johnson’s attorneys told the court that Johnson wished to “accept the reduction of punitive damages” to “avoid further burden of a new trial or appeal.”
Here lie several issues under current tort law. In most tort cases, the plaintiff must prove that he or she sustained damages that were definitively caused by the defendant. In Dewayne Johnson’s case and in many similar cases, it is not possible to conclusively point to one specific cause for cancer, such as is the case with excess drinking and smoking. As such, a court battle could continue even now. Indeed, Johnson’s lawyers made it a point to mention that although Johnson would prefer to accept the reduced award of damages, if Monsanto chose to appeal again, they would continue to fight.
With no definitive test for a cause of cancer, any jury decision in a case such as Johnson’s is directed by perception of facts, which boils down to each juror’s opinion. And when faced with someone like Johnson—a father of three, visibly affected by cancer, set against a corporation as large as Monsanto—it is impossible to say whether the jurors did not have swayed opinions. There will always be some doubt, so should that be considered in the awards distributed to plaintiffs?
As stated in an interview with the Guardian, Johnson hopes that Monsanto and other corporations realize that “people in America and across the world are not ignorant” and that “they have already done their research” into the products they use. Johnson also hopes for a long-term impact that will yield new restrictions and labeling for dangerous substances.
Regardless, Johnson’s story fired up America. Being terminally ill, Johnson was the first in line to take Monsanto to court—the first of more than 4,000 cases. Johnson’s case sets a precedent for thousands of victims, but also forces companies to take a stronger look at their warning labels and encourages citizens to be more cautious in their use of everyday products.