In a judgement delivered on 10 August, the Global agro-chemical behemoth Monsanto was ordered to pay 46-year old Dewayne Johnson $289 million as compensation and punitive damages by a California jury because the company was held responsible for causing him a deadly cancer. Johnson, a father of three children, is reported to have just months to live.
The trial began on July 9 and involved submissions by the victim that showed Monsanto knew about the ill-effects of using its weed-killer Ranger Pro which is similar to the global brand Roundup. These products contain glyphosate which was categorised as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the WHO-affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.
Monsanto sells its weedicides and other agro-chemicals in over 100 countries. Its reported net income was $2.27 billion and its total assets were $21,33 billion in 2017. Earlier this year, German rival Bayer took over Monsanto in a deal worth $66 billion creating the biggest agro-chemical giant in the world.
Johnson was employed as a grounds-keeper by the Benecia School District in the San Francisco Bay Area. He used to spray the weed-killer regularly in the grounds of schools. He claimed that the company failed to warn him about the probable cancer-causing nature of their product.
Johnson developed Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a lethal form of blood cell cancer and is undergoing treatment. He has been forced to stop working and his wife is reportedly working two jobs to maintain the family.
During the trial at the San Francisco Superior Court, Johnson’s lawyer presented internal documents from Monsanto showing that the company repeatedly ignored experts’ warnings, tried to “ghost-write” reports that allowed continuing use of the chemicals and also tried to influence scientific research to show that the chemicals they sold were harmless. All documents have been put in the public domain by the consumer rights group US Right To Know website. Trial transcripts are also publicly available.
“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study. An investigation in Le Monde details Monsanto’s effort “to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate.
Johnson’s victory against the global giant is the first in which cancer has been directly identified as the company’s liability. It is likely that over 4000 similar cases pending in courts across the US will get a boost by this judgement. It will cause many other victims to come forward too.
Scott Partridge, the vice-president of Monsanto, released a statement after the verdict asserting that “glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr Johnson’s cancer”, adding: “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.”
Speaking in San Francisco on Friday, Johnson reportedly said that the jury’s verdict is far bigger than his lawsuit. He said he hopes the case bolsters the thousands of similar lawsuits pending against the company and brings national attention to the issue.