August 2018 - The Johnson Case
In August 2018, a jury in California ordered Monsanto, producers of the widely used weedkiller, Roundup, to pay out almost $290m to groundskeeper, husband and father of three, Dewayne Johnson. Johnson, in the later stages of cancer, brought the case on the basis that Roundup may have had implications for his health and that Monsanto failed to warn of the potential cancer risk of Roundup. "Jurors unanimously found that Monsanto – which vowed to appeal – acted with “malice” and that its weed killers Roundup and the professional grade version RangerPro contributed “substantially” to Dewayne Johnson’s terminal illness". (Journal.ie).
Dewayne Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014. He had been a groundskeeper and stated in his case that he had used a form of Roundup that professional gardners and groundspeople use. It was this prolonged use of Roundup which Johnson and his legal team, claimed had caused Johnson's cancer. The success of the case came as a surprise to many as did the amount awarded, though juries in the US often award large sums. Monsanto pledged to appeal the decision and vigorously defend its product. In October 2018 a judge in San Franciso upheld the decision against Monsanto, while reducing the damages awarded to Mr Johnson, to $78 million.
May 2019 - Couple Awarded $2 Billion
A jury in California awarded a couple over $2 billion in damages in May 2019, following a case where they claimed that Roundup caused their cancer. Bayer, who own Monsanto, insisted that their product is not linked to cancer and promised to appeal the decision and award. The award is striking in its magnitude, but did not have compensation limits imposed by the judge overseeing the case. It is the third time that an award has been made against Bayer in relation to claims that its product is cancer causing.
What Were the Arguments in Court?
In August 2018 The Guardian reported that Dewayne Johnson's case and landmark victory resulted from the jury "determining that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller caused his cancer and that the corporation failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure. The jury further found that Monsanto 'acted with malice or oppression'”. Johnson was the first person to have such a win in court, against the agrochemical giant, Monsanto.
The arguments in the case ranged from suggestions that Monsanto had ghost-written research papers which were then attributed to academics, to accusations that Roundup manufacturers had "fought science" for years. The plaintiffs in the case also claimed that Monsanto had consistently ignored or set aside warnings from experts in relation to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and most widely used herbicide in the world. Monsanto has for many years, argued that glyphosate does not have a causal link to cancer, as does the company's new owner, Bayer. What makes the case striking is not only the sizable award to Mr Johnson, but also the fact that his lawyers "persuaded the jury that Monsanto had known of links between glyphosate and cancer since 1983 and had covered this up" (Economist,18/08/18) Bayer denied this and hoped that an appeal court with judges would have a different approach to that of the jury.
The May 2019 California case continued the agrument that Roundup was directly responsible for causing cancer. The couple at the centre of the case had a legal team who asserted that they had the opportunity to present further evidence to the jury, which had not been seen in court before.
There have been 13,000 lawsuits lodged against Bayer-Monsanto, in the USA alone.
What's the Scientific Debate around Roundup?
In February 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) vigorously defended its 2015 decision that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, was probably carcinogenic. Debate has raged over the last few years, about the research and finding of various studies and analyses of the impact of Roundup on human health, with Reuters reporting that the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC - a branch of WHO) own report edited out some findings which were less daming about glyphosate. On the other hand, it was argued by Johnson's legal team in the case he took against Roundup's manufacturers, that Monsanto has a history of trying to suppress research or "bully" scientists who suggested that there was a potential problem with the product.
In Europe too there is disquiet among some countries incuding France, concerning Roundup, which the EU licences for use, though it would appear that they are in a minority at the moment. It's clear that the debate about Roundup won't end soon. What is clear is the need for transparency in research and findings.
Implications in Other Countries?
One of the key aspects of recent cases, is what the juries saw as the failure of Monsanto to fully acknowledge the potential threat to human health, that they determined Roundup posed. It was this failure to warn about potential risks, that became a key part of the Johnson case. Though recent cases were US based, they raise questions about a duty of care of not only maunfacturers of products, but also of employers in other jurisdictions, to protect their employees from personal injury at work or to inform of the risk of injury. The information that employers give their staff about possible risks to health is one that is already taken seriously in Irish and EU law. Irish and other European based legal and medical experts are watching the Roundup cases in the USA, with interest. The scientific evidence and issues around potential for risk are going to be key in relation to possible cases within Ireland in the future.
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