Don’t weaken the California Public Records Act: No on AB 700

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U.S. Right to Know opposes AB 700, legislation to weaken the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The legislation, sponsored by California Assemblymember Laura Friedman, would exempt much of the work product of California’s public universities from the CPRA. 

On April 2nd, the California Assembly Committee on Judiciary passed the legislation by a vote of 9-3, and referred it to the Committee on Appropriations.

The CPRA is a crucial tool for journalists and citizens, as well as public interest, consumer, environmental, public health and good government advocates in California and across the country to expose corruption, wrongdoing and abuse of power.  We oppose efforts to weaken it, and are concerned that any successful effort to do so could invite others, leading to a slippery slope that could diminish this law in unforeseen ways, at cost to our health, our environment and our democracy.

At California’s public universities, the CPRA is central to efforts to unearth research misconduct and fraud, sexual harassment scandals, financial improprieties and misallocation of funds, government waste, corporate influence in research process, the commercialization of the university, the influence of wealthy donors, and administrative cover-ups of all of the above.  If enacted, this legislation will shield such scandals from exposure and accountability, and invite more.  

See the U.S. Right to Know letter of opposition here. 

The following organizations are opposing AB700. See letters of opposition by:

Articles about AB 700 or the motivation behind it:

California Assembly Committee on Judiciary report on AB 700.

Jurors Want to Hear From Plaintiff Again

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Today marks the beginning of the fourth week of the Hardeman V. Monsanto Roundup cancer trial, and jurors were still deliberating over the sole question that they must answer to close out the first phase of the trial and potentially move into the second phase.

The six jurors let Judge Vince Chhabria know on Friday that as they deliberate they want to have plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s testimony read back to them. Chhabria said that would take place first thing Monday morning.

At Monsanto’s request, the trial has been divided into two phases. The first phase deals only with the question of whether or not jurors find that Hardeman’s exposure to Roundup was a “substantial factor” in causing his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

If the jurors unanimously answer yes to that question the trial moves into a second phase in which Hardeman’s attorneys will put on evidence aimed at showing that Monsanto knew of the cancer risks of Roundup but actively worked to hide that information from consumers, in part by manipulating the scientific record.

If the trial does go to the second phase, the plaintiff will lack one key expert witness – Charles Benbrook – after the judge ruled that he would sharply limit Benbrook’s testimony regarding Monsanto’s corporate conduct.

Hardeman’s lead counsel Aimee Wagstaff and her co-counsel Jennifer Moore plan to spend the day in the courthouse Monday as the jury deliberates after again raising the ire of Judge Chhabria. Chhabria was annoyed Friday that the lawyers took longer than he expected to get to the courthouse after they were notified that all parties must convene to address the jurors’ request to hear Hardeman’s testimony again.

Chhabria sanctioned Wagstaff the first week of the trial for what he called “several acts of misconduct duringher opening statement.” One of her transgressions, according to Chhabria, was spending too much time telling jurors about her client and his cancer diagnosis.

Google Ads Raise Concerns About Geofencing

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(UPDATE 3:30 pm Pacific time- Jurors retiring for the day after failing again to reach a verdict. Testimony from plaintiff Edwin Hardeman to be read back to jurors Monday morning at their request. Judge Chhabria remains irritated with plaintiff’s attorneys, annoyed at the time it took them to arrive at court Friday afternoon.)

Jurors were back in court today resuming deliberations after a day off on Thursday. There is but one question they must answer:  “Did Mr. Hardeman prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?”

The judge admonished the jurors that if they pondered that question on their day off they should not seek out information about the safety of Roundup or read news articles or scientific studies about the matter. They should confine themselves to consideration only of evidence presented at trial.

Interestingly, yesterday in the San Francisco area google ads were popping up on smart phones and computers promoting the safety of Roundup. One site in particular – Weeding Wisely – was coming in at the top of  some Google sites, offering such headlines as “Fear of  ‘chemicals’ results from misunderstanding” and “Look at the science, not scare tactics, of glyphosate herbicide.” Also this one – “Weed Killer Hype Lacks Scientific Support.”

The google ad renewed fears by some that Monsanto and Bayer may be engaging in geofencing, a term used to describe a tactic for delivering specific messaging to individuals within specific geographic areas.

Last month Hardeman attorney Jennifer Moore alerted Judge Chhabria to fears held by Hardeman’s legal team that Monsanto might have engaged in geofencing before and would do so again to try to influence jurors.  Moore told the judge  they were considering “whether we were going to file a temporary restraining order to prohibit Monsanto from any kind of geofencing or targeting jurors through social media or pay-per-click ads. And so I would just ask that that not be done. We’re not doing it on our side, but I just don’t want any targeting of jurors, their social media or Internet means.”

Chhabria replied “Isn’t it, like — doesn’t it go without saying that it would be totally inappropriate?  Obviously nobody on either side — nobody within a hundred miles of either side may attempt to target any juror or prospective juror with any sort of messaging.”

Geofencing is a popular advertising technique that delivers specific messaging/content to anyone within a specific geographic area designated by the company or group paying for the ad. The area can be very small, a mile radius around a specific address, for instance. Or it can be much larger. Anyone within that designated area using an app on a smart phone – such as a weather app or a game – would then be delivered the ad.

Whether or not Monsanto did or would use the tactic to try to influence jurors would be almost impossible to prove. Monsanto attorney Brian Stekloff responded to the concerns raised last month and the judge’s warning about geofencing by saying “I understand that they may have allegations, but I’m not accepting those allegations…..  of course we will abide by that…”

The placement of google ads for certain search terms does not necessarily mean anyone was targeting jurors with geofencing. And it’s worth noting that google ad buys have been – and remain – a popular strategy employed by plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking new Roundup clients.

Trial & Jury Day Off

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Jurors have the day off today but the lawyers do not. Chhabria is holding a hearing with attorneys for both sides at 12:30 pm Pacific time to discuss the scope of the second phase, if a second phase is held.

Among the issues to be discussed, plaintiff’s lawyers are renewing their request to be able to present testimony about Monsanto’s efforts to discredit French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini after publication of his 2012 study findings about rats fed water dosed with Roundup. Internal Monsanto records show a coordinated effort to get the Seralini paper retracted, including this email string.

Monsanto employees apparently were so proud of what they called a “multimedia event that was designed for maximum negative publicity” against Seralini that they designated it as an “achievement” worth recognition.

Evidence demonstrates “that the Séralini story is central to Monsanto’s failure to test as well as its efforts to manipulate public opinion,” Edwin Hardeman’s attorneys argue. As well, they say in their court filing, “the testimony reveals that Monsanto responded to the study by attempting to undermine and discredit Dr. Séralini, which is further evidence “that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer,” but “[focuses] instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue.” ”

“The Séralini Story is Relevant to Monsanto’s Efforts to Undermine Scientists Raising Concerns about Glyphosate,” Hardeman’s attorneys argue.

Lawyers for Hardeman want expert witness Charles Benbrook to be allowed to testify about this example of Monsanto’s corporate conduct “post-use,” meaning actions by Monsanto that took place after Hardeman stopped using Roundup.

Judge Chhabria earlier ruled that the evidence regarding efforts to discredit Seralini could not be introduced because those efforts took place after Hardeman’s Roundup use ended and so would not have impacted him.

On Wednesday, Chhabria also ruled that evidence of Monsanto’s efforts to discredit the International Agency for Research on Cancer after it classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen would be excluded from a second phase of the trial because it took place after Hardeman’s Roundup use ended.

Even as both sides prepare for a second phase, the lack of a quick jury decision does not bode well for Hardeman. His attorneys were hoping for a quick unanimous decision by the jurors in their favor. Any decision by the jury must be unanimous or the case can be declared a mistrial.

Jury Deliberating

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(Video update)

(UPDATE 5:45 p.m. Pacific time – Jury has retired for the evening with no verdict. Deliberations to resume Friday.)

Judge Chhabria instructed lawyers for both sides to be ready to present opening statements for the second phase of the trial today if jurors come back this morning with a verdict. The second phase only occurs, however, if the jurors first find unanimously for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman in the first phase, which dealt solely with the question of causation.

The question that must be answered on the jury verdict form is fairly straightforward:

Did Mr. Hardeman prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

It will take all six jurors to answer yes to that question in order for the trial to continue. If the jurors are split in how they answer the question, the judge has said he would declare a mistrial.

The judge guided the jurors in how to consider that question and how to evaluate the evidence presented to them in a 17-page list of instructions.

The jurors are allowed to request to look at specific exhibits and pieces of evidence but they are not allowed to see transcripts of the previous days of testimony. The judge said that if jurors want to review the testimony of a particular witness they can ask to have that witness’s testimony, or a portion of that witness’s testimony, read back to them but the lawyers and judge would need to be present for that.

If jurors return a verdict in favor of Hardeman on Wednesday afternoon, opening statements for phase two will take place Friday.

Chhabria kept a tight rein on closing arguments Tuesday, prohibiting Hardeman’s lead attorney Aimee Wagstaff from showing a photo of Hardeman and his wife in her closing slide presentation. He told Wagstaff that the photo was “not relevant” and said that he did not “need to hear
further argument about that.” When she asked for his rationale, Chhabria simply repeated his belief that it was not relevant.

Monsanto filed a motion for a directed verdict on Tuesday, arguing that Hardeman has presented “insufficient general causation evidence,” and specifically attacked the credibility of pathologist Dennis Weisenburger, one of Hardeman’s expert witnesses. Judge Chhabria denied the motion. 

Separately, the upcoming Pilliod V. Monsanto case in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland was looking at a sizable jury pool of more than 200 people. They plan to select 17, with 12 jurors and five alternates.  The case may not begin until March 27 or March 28 due to the lengthy jury selection process.

Concerns over Judge’s Jury Instructions

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(Transcript from today’s proceedings)

(UPDATE, 3 p.m. Pacific Time – Closing arguments are completed. The jury has received instructions for deliberations.)

Closing arguments got underway Tuesday. With the first phase of Hardeman V. Monsanto winding down plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s attorneys issued a strong objection to Judge Vince Chhabria’s plans for instructing the jury about how to consider the issue of causation.

The way Chhabria worded his instructions makes it “impossible” for Hardeman to prevail, attorney Jennifer Moore wrote in a letter to the judge. California law sets for instructions that causation is determined when a substance or action is a “substantial factor” in causing an outcome. But the judge’s instructions would require jurors to find that Roundup was the sole factor that caused Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Moore argued.

Judge Chhabria replied by saying he could not give “the standard California multiple causation instruction” because plaintiff’s attorneys failed to present evidence that Hardeman’s cancer was due to multiple factors. He did say, however, that he could modify the instructions slightly to try to address the concerns. In the final instruction Chhabria added wording that said a substantial factor “does not have to be the only cause of the harm.”

Monsanto has argued that Hardeman’s cancer is not due to exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides but more likely due to the hepatitis C Hardeman had for many years.

This is also an interesting little nugget in the jury instructions:

Meanwhile, in the upcoming Pilliod V. Monsanto case, motion hearings and discussion of hardship claims for prospective jurors begins next week in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, not far from downtown San Francisco where the Hardeman case may still be underway if it goes to the second phase.

Opening statements in the Pilliod trial could begin March 21 but more likely will take place March 25 or later depending on how long the jury selection process takes.

Hepatitis C and… Hugh Grant?

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(See video update here)

(Transcript from today’s proceedings)

Monsanto’s legal team on Monday presented testimony from Dr. Alexandra Levine, a hematologist/oncologist with City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, seeking to convince the jury that exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides was not a cause of Hardeman’s cancer, and that a more likely factor is the hepatitis C Hardeman had for many years. Levine testified that she has seen “many, many, thousands of patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” and she is in fact considered a specialist in that specific disease.

Judge Chhabria said last week that he would like to see this first phase of the trial wrapped up early this week, meaning the case should be with the jury soon. A verdict requires all six jurors to be unanimous in their finding regarding whether or not Hardeman’s exposure to Roundup “was a substantial factor” in causing his cancer. The judge will define for jurors what that means. (See Friday’s entry for more details.)

If the jury does not unanimously decide either for Hardeman or Monsanto then the case would be a mistrial. Chhabria has also said that if that happens he is considering retrying it in May.

If the jury finds for Hardeman on causation, the trial would quickly move into Phase II using the same jury. And that is where things will really start to get interesting. Hardeman’s attorneys plan to call several Monsanto executives for testimony, including former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant. Grant spent more than 35 years at the company and was named CEO in 2003. He led the company until its acquisition by Bayer AG last summer.

Additionally, lawyers for Hardeman plan to call Roger McClellan, editor of the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology (CRT), which published a series of papers in September 2016 that rebuked the finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. The papers purported to be written by independent scientists who found that the weight of evidence showed the weed killer was unlikely to pose any carcinogenic risk to people.

However, internal Monsanto documents show that the papers were conceptualized from the outset as a strategy by Monsanto to discredit IARC. One of Monsanto’s top scientists not only reviewed the manuscripts but had a hand in drafting and editing them, though that was not disclosed by CRT.

Hardeman’s lawyers additionally said they plan to call Doreen Manchester, of CropLife America, the agrochemical industry’s lobbying organization. Manchester’s role at CropLife has been helping “lead federal and state litigation to support pesticide regulatory issues.”

Phase 1 Nears End, Judge Ponders Jury Instructions

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(Transcript from today’s proceedings)

Lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman rested their case on Friday, giving Monsanto a turn to put on its own witnesses in this first phase of the case.

Judge Chhabria has indicated he would like to see the first phase of the trial wrapped up by early next week, and he has ordered attorneys for both sides to be ready to discuss and debate two proposed sets of instructions for him to give the jury for deliberations regarding the definition of “causation.”

For Hardeman’s case to be allowed to proceed to a Phase 2 in which damages could be awarded, the group of six jurors must be unanimous in finding that Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma, so the judge’s instructions about how the element of causation is defined is a critical point.

The judge’s first option reads as follows: “To prevail on the question of medical causation, Mr. Hardeman must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A substantial factor is a factor that a reasonable person would consider to have contributed to the harm. It must be more than a remote or trivial factor. If you conclude that Mr. Hardeman has proven that his exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his NHL, then you should find for Mr. Hardeman even if you believe that other risk factors were substantial factors as well.”

The judge’s second option has the same first three lines as the first option but then adds this: “Conduct is not a substantial factor in causing harm if the same harm would have occurred without that conduct.”

Option 2 also changes the last line of the instruction to say: “However, if you conclude that Mr. Hardeman has proven that his exposure to Roundup was sufficient on its own to cause his NHL, then you should find for Mr. Hardeman even if you believe that other risk factors were also sufficient to cause his NHL.”

A big part of Monsanto’s defense is to suggest that other factors could be the cause of Hardeman’s cancer, including a struggle with hepatitis C. Hardeman’s team has said that he was cured in 2006 of hepatitis C but Monsanto’s team argues that cell damage from the hepatitis was a potential contributor to his cancer.

Monsanto expert witness Dr. Daniel Arber  in his pre-trial report wrote that Hardeman has many risk factors for NHL, and said: “There is no indication that Roundup played any role in the development of his NHL, and there are no pathological features to suggest a cause of his lymphoma.”

Judge Chhabria has ruled that Arber cannot testify that the hepatitis C caused Hardeman’s NHL but ruled Thursday that Arber can explain that Hardeman’s lengthy exposure to hepatitis C left him at risk of developing NHL even after his virus had been successfully treated.

Several new documents have been filed by both parties related to evidence and jury instructions. See them at Monsanto Papers Hardeman page.

Judge Has Harsh Words for Monsanto

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Judge Vince Chhabria issued a stinging response to Monsanto’s motion for summary judgment on Thursday, stating in his order that there was plenty of evidence that the company’s glyphosate herbicides – namely Roundup – could have caused plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s cancer. 

“To take just one example,” the judge wrote, “the De Roos (2003) study supports a conclusion that glyphosate is a risk factor for NHL, yet Monsanto fails to mention it inits motion. Monsanto cannot prevail on a motion for summary judgment by simply ignoring large swaths of evidence.” 

He also said there was “sufficient evidence” to support a punitive damages award against Monsanto if the jury finds for Hardeman. 

“The plaintiffs have presented a great deal of evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of its product,” Judge Chhabria stated in his ruling. 

The judge concluded: “Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue.”