SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Attorneys for a Bay Area man dying of lymphoma asked a San Francisco jury Tuesday to award their client $412 million in damages against Monsanto for failing to warn that its popular Roundup weed killer can cause cancer, in the first-ever trial over the herbicide’s alleged carcinogenicity.
Describing plaintiff DeWayne Johnson’s four-year battle with cancer, Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman attorney Brent Wisner said the illness had caused chunks of his client’s skin to fall off his body, forced him into endless rounds of debilitating chemotherapy, and turned him into a pariah whom strangers shunned for fear of infection.
Unless the jury awards damages high enough to punish Monsanto, he said, the company will keep destroying lives like Johnson’s.
“If that number comes out and it’s not significant enough, champagne corks pop, attaboys everywhere,” Wisner said, asking the jury to picture a boardroom full of unscrupulous Monsanto executives celebrating a verdict in their favor.
Johnson, 46, sued the agrichemical company in 2016 after he was diagnosed with mycosis fungoides, a skin-based non-Hodgkin lymphoma that caused cancerous lesions to form over most of his body.
He said he developed symptoms after he was twice drenched in Roundup and regularly had it drift into his face while spraying schoolyards for his job with the school district in Benicia, a suburb of San Francisco.
Although U.S. and European regulators have concluded Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate is safe, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it in 2015 as a probable human carcinogen, triggering hundreds of lawsuits against Monsanto in the United States, including Johnson’s.
His lawyers argued during the bruising four-week trial that Monsanto has known for decades that Roundup is carcinogenic but didn’t include a cancer warning label or instruct users to wear protective clothing for fear of disrupting its $6.6 billion global business.
Monsanto, meanwhile, insisted Roundup is safe. It argued the herbicide could not have caused Johnson’s lymphoma because cancer takes at least 2.5 years to develop, and Johnson used Roundup for just one summer spraying season before developing symptoms the following fall.
The science on a link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma is uncertain. Some researchers say studies finding a link suffer from measurement errors and design flaws, overestimating cancer risk. Others criticize studies finding no link for their statistical methods they say underestimate risk, and have accused regulators of ignoring guidelines for the evaluation of herbicides.
Johnson’s and Monsanto’s attorneys likewise sparred over the research throughout trial, presenting competing but equally plausible narratives of its implications.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Wisner said epidemiological, animal and cell – or mechanistic – studies all show glyphosate is carcinogenic. He noted that Monsanto didn’t have an expert witness testify about the cell studies, which he said show the strongest evidence of a link.
“They could’ve brought in a mechanistic person but they didn’t even bother,” he said, because doing so “would have been a disaster” for the company.
But George Lombardi, Monsanto’s attorney with Winston & Strawn, reminded the jury an expert witness suggested last week that mycosis fungoides is inherited and not caused by changes in cells.
“The whole idea that DNA damage and oxidative stress is at the root of mycosis fungoides is not supported by the evidence,” Lombardi said, also disputing that the animal studies had shown a link between glyphosate and cancer.
Lombardi encouraged the jury to instead look at the epidemiological research, which IARC found was the least supportive of a finding of carcinogenicity. In particular, he asked them to consider the federally backed Agricultural Health Study, which looks at the long-term exposure to pesticides of farmers and other pesticide users. The ongoing study has twice found no association between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Monsanto says the Agricultural Health Study is the best of its kind due to its size and comprehensiveness. But Johnson’s experts have slammed its use of a statistical tool called imputation they say created a 20 percent error in the results that invalidate its conclusions.
Key to the case, however, is whether Johnson used Roundup long enough for it to have caused his cancer.
According to Lombardi, Johnson’s attorneys fudged the dates of Johnson’s spraying accidents to look as if they happened before his symptoms appeared.
While Johnson’s lawyers said the first accident happened in summer 2013, Lombardi said it actually happened nearly a year later, in spring 2014, making his exposure time too short.
“Plaintiff is trying to sell you on a story that doesn’t square with what his own witness said,” Lombardi told the jury. “[P]laintiff’s story just doesn’t make sense.”
Glyphosate is the most widely used agrichemical in history. Monsanto introduced it in 1974, and its use exploded in 1996 after the company began selling “Roundup-ready” seeds engineered to resist the herbicide. More than 2.6 billion pounds of the chemical were spread on U.S. farmlands and yards between 1992 and 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In June, German pharmaceutical giant Bayer completed its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto after approval by U.S. and European regulators. Bayer told Reuters that same month it plans to retire the Monsanto name.
Johnson seeks $373 million in punitive damages, $39 million in compensatory damages and that Roundup carry a cancer risk warning.
“Today in this courtroom, tomorrow in deliberations and when you return a verdict, we’re going to make it right, and your verdict will be heard around the world,” Wisner told the jury. “Monsanto will finally have to do something: conduct the studies it never conducted and warn those people it never warned.”
A Monsanto spokesman said the company had no comment on Tuesday’s proceedings.
The jury begins deliberations Wednesday.