OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – For decades, agrochemical giant Monsanto has worked intensely on a single endeavor – protecting its FTO, or freedom to operate – by doing whatever it took to lessen or eliminate restrictions on its products. A jury of five women and seven men delivered a devastating blow to that mission Monday, awarding an elderly couple over $1 billion each after finding Monsanto failed to warn them about the hazards of the popular weed killer Roundup.
The verdict comes after a five-week trial over whether the agrochemical company knowingly concealed its product’s possible carcinogenicity from consumers.
“If Bayer doesn’t wise up and see the writing on the wall, we’re going to dismantle this company with these verdicts,” said Brent Wisner with Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman in Los Angeles, who represented Alva and Alberta Pilliod.
The Pilliods are among hundreds who sued Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate, the main chemical compound in Roundup, a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
Both were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which they attributed to years of regular Roundup use. Alva was diagnosed with systemic diffuse large B-Cell lymphoma in his bones in 2011; Alberta was diagnosed with an aggressive subset of that lymphoma in her brain in 2015.
Most jurors left the building without speaking to anyone, but a few stuck around to speak with an assemblage of lawyers and reporters in the hallway. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Mark Miller with the Miller Firm in Virginia, called them “American heroes.”
One juror who declined to give his name said he thought scientists Christopher Portier and Dennis Weisenburger, who testified for the plaintiffs, were the most credible. He said he also liked Dr. Alexandra Levine, a hematologist and oncologist at City of Hope since she was a world-renowned expert, but “not in glyphosate or Roundup. She was not as knowledgeable as Portier and Weisenburger," he said.
Juror Doug Olsen said he thought Roundup “was a substantial factor” in causing the plaintiffs’ cancers. “Mr. Pilliod was probably the worst person to use Roundup because of his medical history,” he said.
What stuck in Olsen’s mind was the video ad for Roundup that Wisner played in court. It depicted a suburban dad in shorts and a T-shirt fighting weeds with a Roundup sprayer.
“They were visual and designed to stick in your mind,” he said. “It certainly did in mine.”
Monsanto attorney Tarek Ismail asked the jurors: “What did you want to see from us?”
The juror who declined to give his name replied, “I want you to show that it’s safe. I want you to get up there and drink it, I guess.”
Olsen said the Pilliods’ story did not have much influence on him. Both Alva and Alberta were asked if they would not have used Roundup if they had known about the risk.
“They both answered ‘yes’ immediately,” Olsen said. “And I wonder if they were really that sure.”
Monsanto’s lawyers argued glyphosate does not cause mutations that can lead to cancer, and that the Pilliods were both uniquely at risk for developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma; Alva because of his abnormally deficient immune system and Alberta because she’s had a history of autoimmune disease and other cancers.
Only AIDS and a compromised immune system are known to cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Monsanto’s experts testified, noting that cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma have plateaued since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s.
They’ve also noted that virtually every environmental regulatory body worldwide, including the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan and Australia, have found glyphosate not to be a carcinogen.
Meanwhile, the Pilliods’ attorneys hammered away at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which currently does not require a warning label on Roundup bottles. They showed the jury emails and text messages suggesting that Monsanto may have tried, and succeeded, to exert undue influence on the agency’s ongoing glyphosate review and to delay the release of a toxicology profile by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
After three days of deliberations, the jurors awarded the Pilliods $1 billion each in punitive damages. The jury also awarded Alva Pilliod over $47,000 in past economic damages, $8 million in noneconomic damages and $10 million for future damages.
Jurors handed Alberta Pilliod over $201,000 in past economic damages, $8 million in noneconomic damages and $26 million for future damages.
The verdict was nearly unanimous on all counts, with the jurors agreeing that Monsanto was aware of the risks associated with its product and negligently failed to warn consumers. They also agreed Monsanto acted with malice, oppression or fraud, which is required for punitive damages.
Only one juror did not agree that Roundup played a substantial role in the Pilliods’ harm. Three jurors disagreed with the $1 billion award for each of the Pilliods, including Olsen. “I thought it was too high,” he said.
Monday’s award of over $2 billion is the latest – and largest – in a string of legal blows to German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto for $66 billion last June.
Two other Bay Area residents were recently awarded hefty damages by separate juries. In August 2018, a jury found Monsanto owed Dewayne Lee Johnson $289 million in damages – later reduced by a judge to $78 million— after finding Roundup caused his terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and federal jury awarded Ed Hardeman $75 million in punitive damages for failing to warn him about the product’s hazards.
In the hallway, Monsanto attorney Kelly Evans declined to comment. But in a statement, Bayer called the verdict “excessive and unjustifiable.”
“Bayer is disappointed with the jury’s decision and will appeal the verdict in this case, which conflicts directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s interim registration review decision released just last month, the consensus among leading health regulators worldwide that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, and the 40 years of extensive scientific research on which their favorable conclusions are based,” the company said.
“We have great sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Pilliod, but the evidence in this case was clear that both have long histories of illnesses known to be substantial risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), most NHL has no known cause, and there is not reliable scientific evidence to conclude that glyphosate-based herbicides were the ‘but for’ cause of their illnesses as the jury was required to find in this case,” the company added.
Speaking to reporters, the Pilliods' attorney Miller said, “I’m sure Monsanto will appeal but we’ll prevail.”
Alva Pilliod thanked the jury and his attorneys outside the courtroom. “I think we had a very good jury,” he told Courthouse News. “The attorneys were great.”
As for Bayer, he said, “They’ve got to do something.” And then he added, shaking his head: “Too, too many people.”
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