A lawyer on Tuesday asked a San Francisco jury to award $412 million to a former school groundskeeper who claimed he was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using Monsanto Co.’s weed killer.
The trial, which began July 9, is the first to allege Monsanto Co.’s Roundup caused cancer. A San Francisco Superior Court jury is set to start deliberations on Wednesday.
R. Brent Wisner, Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman.
Plaintiff’s lawyer R. Brent Wisner asked jurors to award more than $39 million in compensatory damages and $373 million in punitive damages to his client, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, according to coverage of the trial broadcast by Courtroom View Network and monitored by ALM. Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014 after two years of spraying Ranger Pro, a Monsanto herbicide similar to Roundup.
“That’s a number that sends a signal to Monsanto and everybody who works there: ‘We will not tolerate this kind of conduct,’” said Wisner, of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. “When you return a verdict, we’re going to make it right. And your verdict will be heard around the world. And Monsanto will have to finally do something.”
Monsanto’s attorney, George Lombardi of Winston & Strawn, countered that reams of scientific studies and regulatory agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, showed no link between glyphosate, Roundup’s key ingredient, and Johnson’s cancer, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called mycosis fungoides.
“The key question in this case is whether Mr. [Johnson’s] cancer, mycosis fungoides, was caused by Monsanto’s product, Ranger Pro, and, in some instances, Roundup,” he said. “Forty years of this product on the market. Forty years of this product being regulated. Forty years of scientific studies ranging from human to animal to cell. The message from that evidence is clear, and that is that this cancer was not caused by Ranger Pro.”
Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis, faces about 4,000 lawsuits over Roundup. About 150 suits have been coordinated in San Francisco Superior Court, one of which is Johnson’s case, brought in 2016.
The trial focused on multiple studies—epidemiological and those on cells, mice and rats.
Lombardi sought to discredit many of the plaintiff’s experts, noting that lawyers paid them to testify. He also said Johnson’s treating physicians never told him that Monsanto’s products caused his cancer or insisted he stop using Ranger Pro or Roundup on the job.
“You have to be persuaded, and you shouldn’t have a plaintiff’s lawyer tell you what it means to you to be persuaded,” he said. “There’s facts, and there’s arguments. And the facts are what should lead you in this case.”
Wisner relied on a 2015 decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. He pointed out that while no single study found that Roundup caused cancer, the totality of the research does.
At times, Wisner’s remarks got personal. Pointing to Robyn Buck, Monsanto’s assistant general counsel of litigation, he told jurors that her phone had a Monsanto conference room on speed dial, where executives had a “bunch of champagne on ice” waiting—a remark that drew an objection from opposing counsel and a rebuke from San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos.
He also talked about how cancer had affected his client, whose wife worked 14 hours a day to pay their medical bills.
“As this case has unfolded, it’s occurred to me this isn’t just about the choice that was robbed from my client,” he said. “It’s also about the choices that Monsanto made.”
He said Monsanto chose not to return Johnson’s calls or put labels on its product warning of cancer risks, for instance.
“That is a choice that reflects reckless disregard for human health. It’s a choice Monsanto made, and today is their day of reckoning,” said Wisner.