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February 19, 2019

Last-Minute Moves

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With less than a week to go before opening statements in the Feb. 25 federal civil trial over accusations that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers cause cancer, lawyers for both sides were readying for jury selection that starts Wednesday.

In pre-trial proceedings lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman and the legal team representing Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, have already been arguing over jury selection based solely on written responses provided by prospective jurors, and many have already been stricken by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria for cause.

On Wednesday, attorneys will question the prospective jurors in person. Monsanto’s attorneys are particularly concerned about potential jurors who know about the case that Monsanto lost last summer. In that trial, plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson won a unanimous jury verdict on claims similar to Hardeman’s – that Monsanto’s herbicides caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto failed to warn of the risks. Johnson was awarded $289 million by jurors, but the judge in the case reduced the verdict to $78 million.

The stakes in this case are high. The first loss hit Bayer hard; its share price is down nearly 30 percent since the verdict and investors remain skittish. Another loss in court could provide another blow to the company’s market capitalization, particularly because there are roughly 9,000 other plaintiffs waiting for their day in court.

In preparation for the trial opening on Monday morning, Judge Chhabria said in a Feb. 15 hearing that he will separate out all jury candidates on a Monsanto list who say they have heard about the Johnson case for specific questioning about their knowledge of that case.

Among those already stricken from the jury pool based on their written questionnaires were several people who indicated they had negative perceptions about Monsanto. While the judge agreed with Monsanto’s request to remove those people from the jury pool, he refused a request from plaintiff’s attorneys to strike a prospective juror who said the opposite – the juror wrote that he feels that “they (Monsanto) typically are very honest and helpful to society,” and said he believed Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide was safe.

Judge Chhabria said “I didn’t think anyone in the Bay Area felt that way….”

In other pre-trial action, lawyers from both sides were in Australia preparing for testimony from plaintiff’s expert witness Christopher Portier. Portier is providing video-recorded testimony in advance with direct and cross-examination. He was scheduled to be in court in person for the trial but suffered a heart attack in January and has been advised against the long air travel that would be required to appear in person.

Portier is one of the plaintiff’s star witnesses. He is former director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and a former scientist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

In other pre-trial action, Judge Chhabria ruled on Monday on motions from both parties dealing with what evidence would be allowed in and what would be excluded. Chhabria has ruled that there will be a first phase of the trial in which evidence will be limited to causation. If the jury does find that Monsanto’s products caused Hardeman’s cancer there will be a second phase in which evidence may be introduced pertaining to the allegations by plaintiff’s attorneys that Monsanto has engaged in a cover-up of the risks of its products.

Among Chhabria’s evidentiary rulings:

  • Evidence the plaintiff’s attorneys say shows Monsanto engaged in ghostwriting scientific literature is excluded for the first phase of the trial.
  • Evidence or Monsanto’s marketing materials is excluded for both phases.
  • Comparisons between Monsanto and the tobacco industry are excluded.
  • An email from Monsanto discussing work with the American Council on Science and Health is excluded from the first phase.
  • Arguments that glyphosate is needed to “feed the world” are excluded for both phases.
  • Certain EPA documents are excluded.
  • An analysis by the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen is “restricted.”

One piece of evidence plaintiff’s attorneys plan to introduce is a new meta-analysis A broad new scientific analysis of the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate herbicides. The study found that people with high exposures to the herbicides have a 41% increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

The study authors, top scientists who the Environmental Protection Agency has used as advisers, said the evidence “supports a compelling link” between exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides and increased risk for NHL.