(CN) — Agrochemical corporation Monsanto and its owner Bayer were hit with a federal lawsuit Thursday for refusing to finalize a settlement payout with a non-U.S. citizen who developed cancer from using Roundup.
The complaint was filed in Abingdon, Virginia, federal court by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, and other groups and firms on behalf of Elvira Reyes-Hernandez.
In 2018, Reyes-Hernandez developed a painful swelling in her neck and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma the following year. She had worked on various tree farms in Virginia since 2015, where her job duties included regularly spraying Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer.
Over the last few years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto by cancer patients exposed to Roundup, including Reyes-Hernandez. Their claims are based on certain studies that have found that one of the product’s main ingredients, glyphosate, increases the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Bayer established a $10 billion settlement fund to resolve some of these claims, but refused to finalize the $412 million agreement with Reyes-Hernandez and her attorneys, allegedly because she does not have U.S. citizenship.
Monsanto and Bayer deny the allegation.
"The lawsuit brought by Ms. Reyes-Hernandez has no merit as Monsanto and her own former legal counsel agreed to the terms of the settlement agreement which included proper venue and state law considerations with respect to foreign litigants," a spokesperson for Bayer said in an emailed statement Thursday.
The statement continued, "Ms. Reyes-Hernandez later voluntarily dismissed her case and refiled her personal injury claim, as she was entitled to do under the settlement agreement, in July 2022 in the Missouri Circuit Court for St. Louis County where it is currently pending. The treatment of Ms. Reyes-Hernandez is no different than any other plaintiff who did not meet the terms of their settlement agreement."
Thursday’s lawsuit accuses Monsanto and Bayer of violating section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, which was enacted shortly after the Civil War to grant all persons the right to make and enforce contracts regardless of race.
Three law firms are also listed as defendants in the complaint for allegedly not “honoring their contractual commitment to litigate" Reyes-Hernandez's claim after they dropped her as a client, allegedly telling her she was ineligible for the settlement payout.
Her new legal team seeks monetary damages as well as an order that Monsanto and Bayer pay those who have been excluded from settlements based on their citizenship status. The lawsuit states that “individuals with some of the worst exposures to Roundup have been kept out of the settlement program” because a majority of agricultural crop farm workers are not U.S. citizens.
“This case cuts to the core of our nation’s justice system and invokes a fundamental civil rights statute,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that filed the case. “Every person in this country, regardless of race or alienage, must be afforded equal protection under the law – whether that is in court or in the making and enforcement of contract agreements.”
The defendant law firms – Holland Law Firm, Ketterer, Brown & Associates and GED Lawyers – did not immediately return a request for comment.
Fifty-three percent of farm laborers, graders and sorters are not U.S. citizens, according to demographic information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Farm laborers have lower levels of educational attainment, are more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and are less likely to be citizens than both workers in other occupations in agriculture and the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole," the USDA's website states.
Despite the nationwide litigation efforts, Bayer continues to sell Roundup and assert that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe to use and do not cause cancer, and are subject to rigorous testing and oversight by regulatory authorities.
"We have great sympathy for anyone who suffers from disease, and we understand their search for answers. At the same time, the extensive body of science continues to show that our products are not responsible for the illnesses alleged in this litigation," the company said in a statement.
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