Groundskeeper Claims Monsanto, Roundup Responsible for Cancer
As groundskeeper for the school district in Benicia, California, about 40 miles east of San Francisco, Lee Johnson mixed and sprayed hundreds of gallons of Monsanto’s Roundup. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and in July, after chemotherapy, his oncologist gave him six months to live. He claims his job had something to do with it.
Johnson, a father of two, applied Roundup weed killer 20 to 30 times per year while working as a pest manager for a county school system. Johnson’s doctors didn’t think he’d live long enough to testify in court that exposure to Monsanto Co.’s Roundup had caused his deadly cancer. But now the 46-year-old is now first in line to go to trial against the giant company. He’ll be the first given his prognosis.
Glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide, was approved for use as an herbicide in 1974. The question of whether it causes cancer has long been debated by environmentalists, regulators, researchers, advocates, and attorneys. There is controversy regarding whether it causes health issues, and if so, how long they take to develop. Now, a jury will decide in San Francisco state court.
Johnson’s attorneys, who are involved in lawsuits in all several different jurisdictions, see his trial as an indicator of how others will go. The trial is the “canary in the coal mine,” said Tim Litzenburg, an attorney representing Johnson. “The world is watching, and it’s unofficially a bellwether case.”
Johnson’s trial was “barely on any investors’ radar screens,” Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., said. “It seems like there are always a few lawsuits claiming Monsanto is responsible for everything from cancer to the Black Plague.”
Bayer AG’s $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto closed this month. Oxgaard said Bayer will probably assume Monsanto’s risk from the prolific litigation over glyphosate. As of August, Monsanto had a reserve fund for environmental and litigation liability of $277 million.
“Every major regulatory agency charged with answering the question has, with the benefit of all the available primary data, concluded that glyphosate is not likely to pose risks of carcinogenicity,” Monsanto argued in a filing. Cancers like Johnson’s, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, “take many years to form,” Monsanto said. The short period between Johnson’s first exposure in 2012 and his diagnosis in 2014 “precludes any possible causal connection here.”
Since Johnson filed, hundreds of other non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients have made similar claims against the company, according to Litzenburg. He now represents “more than 2,000 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma sufferers who used Roundup extensively,” he said.
A pretrial ruling is allowing Johnson and his attorney to try to use internal Monsanto correspondence to show the company has long been aware of the risk its herbicides are carcinogenic despite its claims. Whether the party will be allowed to do so will be up to the court.
“A civil jury is the last great equalizer in America,” Litzenburg said. “We’re excited to get twelve people off the street, telling our story to a bunch of regular folks, hearing the other side, and then letting them decide what’s right.”
The case is Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Co., CGC-16-550128, California Superior Court (San Francisco).