Covid delays one Roundup cancer trial while another looms

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The California trial pitting an elderly cancer victim against Monsanto owner Bayer AG has been delayed due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, with proceedings now expected to resume next week in a virtual format via Zoom.

Lawyers for plaintiff Donnetta Stephens say that she was a regular user of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years, an extended exposure that caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Before the trial interruption jury members heard expert witness testimony from former U.S. government scientist Christopher Portier, who told jurors of multiple scientific studies that support claims glyphosate herbicides cause NHL. Lawyers for Monsanto sought to discredit Portier, and discount his testimony, arguing he had a vested financial interest in helping plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Additional experts were due to testify this week before in-person proceedings were scuttled due to positive cases of the Covid-19 virus showing up among people in the courtroom.

Stephens was diagnosed with NHL in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health,  a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.

She is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

She and the others who have sued allege that Monsanto has known for decades of scientific research showing its glyphosate herbicides could cause cancer, but has failed to warn users of the risks, working instead to suppress information about potential dangers.

The company lost the three trials held to date.

Trial with child plaintiff is next

Though Bayer last year said it was moving to settle outstanding Roundup lawsuits, many remain active and headed toward trial.

A boy with non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the subject of a trial scheduled for Sept. 13 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Ezra Clark was “directly exposed” to Roundup many times as he accompanied his mother while she sprayed Roundup to kill weeds around the property where the family lived, according to court documents. Ezra sometimes played in freshly sprayed areas, according to the court filings.

Ezra was diagnosed in 2016, at the age of 4, with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a form of NHL that has a high tendency to spread to the central nervous system, and can also involve the liver, spleen and bone marrow, according to the court filings.

Ezra’s mother, Destiny Clark, is the plaintiff in the case, filing on behalf of Ezra.

Expedited trial sought for dying man

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who has been overseeing thousands of Roundup cases through multidistrict litigation proceedings set up in 2016 in federal court in the Northern District of California, has set several upcoming deadlines for moving cases forward that are under his purview. According to a court document filed Monday,  close to 4,000 cases have come under Chhabria’s oversight since the inception of the litigation.

Chhabria has ordered lawyers in the litigation to submit to him by Wednesday a list of certain cases that have not yet settled, and proposed schedules for advancing those cases. He also set a case management conference for Sept. 8.

At least one plaintiff is seeking an expedited trial, asking Chhabria to approve trial preference already granted him by a state court judge. Plaintiff Donald Miller was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup product for over four decades, according to the court filings.

Miller’s doctor estimated he had a five-year overall survival expectancy of only thirty-seven percent as of
February, 2020, according to court filings. A hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 23.

Many more cases remain pending in state courts, with plaintiffs’ lawyers jockeying for trial dates.

Bayer last week petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review one of its trial losses. The company claims federal law preempts key claims made in the litigation.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, insists that when used as directed, its glyphosate herbicides are safe and do not cause cancer. It says regulatory approvals support its position.