Bayer Roundup trial goes virtual, and it does not go well

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In fits and starts, and with a good dose of frustration over technical difficulties, a California trial pitting an elderly cancer victim against Monsanto owner Bayer AG resumed on Monday in a virtual format after in-person proceedings were suspended last week, reportedly due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

Due to an array of technical problems, lawyers for  plaintiff Donnetta Stephens were only able to present abbreviated testimony on Monday from expert witness Charles Benbrook, a former research professor who served at one time as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture.

Benbrook is considered a key witness, and is being called to testify about topics that include the history of scientific submissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by Monsanto and alleged regulatory shortcomings.

The case, which is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa,   is the fourth Roundup cancer trial to take place in the United States and the first since 2019. Juries in all three prior trials found in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks, and failing to warn users.

Stephens 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.

The three prior trials were all lengthy, in-person proceedings loaded with weeks of highly technical testimony about scientific data, regulatory matters and documents detailing internal Monsanto communications.

Monday’s proceedings indicated that both sides may face significant challenges in trying to convey and combat the evidence and testimony in a virtual format.

Among the issues on Monday, a court reporter couldn’t fully hear the exchanges between lawyer and witness; jurors had difficulty turning on their computer cameras, a requirement issued by the judge; and the judge himself had to relocate at one point in an effort to improve audio transmission.

A courtroom attendant reassured the judge that he was checking in on the jurors every ten minutes and “it appeared that they were all paying attention.”

At one point when calling a break, Judge Ochoa pleaded: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury please, whatever you do, don’t turn off your computers, don’t touch them, just leave them alone and hopefully everybody’s computer will play nice.”

The judge recessed for the day in mid-afternoon, thanking the jurors for their patience.

“We did have some major technical difficulties,” Judge Ochoa said. He noted, however, that they “did make history” by holding the court’s first “Zoom trial.”

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