Son testifies about his mother’s cancer alleged due to Roundup exposure

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A woman suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma was a devoted user of Roundup herbicide for decades before she became ill, her son testified Tuesday in a California trial that marks the fourth such trial pitting a cancer victim against Roundup maker Monsanto.

Under questioning by a lawyer representing plaintiff Donetta Stephens, her son David Stephens recalled his mother’s frequent use of Roundup in the yard and her tendency to wear sleeveless shirts and shorts when outside spraying the weed killer. He described recalling her use when he was a child and that use continuing when he was an adult and had his own children.

Stephens also testified about a family gathering in which his mother broke the news of her cancer to the family, the lengthy series of medical treatments that followed, his mother’s memory loss and other treatment-related problems, and a period in which his mother was hospitalized multiple times and nearly died.

Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and other weed killing brands.

Bayer AG bought Monsanto in June 2018 just as the first trial was getting underway.

Three previous trials held to date were all found in favor of the plaintiffs. Jurors in those trials agreed with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks and failing to warn users.

The Stephens case is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa. Though the trial started in person, Judge Ochoa ordered the proceedings shifted to a Zoom trial due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19 virus.

In testimony Tuesday, David Stephens broke down, emotionally describing a time when it appeared his mother was near death, and speaking of a photo he took of her that he thought at the time would be the last.

“I took that picture because when you think that your mother is going to die and that could be the last picture…,” Stephens said haltingly. “I wanted to take that picture so I could remember…”

Donnetta Stephens is now in remission from cancer but has been left debilitated, her son testified.

Former Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer will be called to testify next week, according to Stephens’ lawyer Fletch Trammell.

Technical trouble

The trial has been plagued by technical issues since the transition to a virtual setting through Zoom. There have been multiple times proceedings have been halted because a lawyer or juror loses an audio or video connection or experiences other difficulties. The virtual format has also proven problematic at times for the presentation of certain exhibits.

A courtroom attendant has been assigned to monitor jurors to determine if they are paying attention, and to alert the judge to lost connections or other problems.

In Tuesday’s testimony, as Monsanto lawyer Manuel Cachan was attempting to cross examine Stephens, questioning the reliability of his memory regarding his mother’s use of Roundup, the technical trouble kicked in again.

“I’m sorry for the interruption, juror number 13 is having issues, just starting to quote unquote glitch out,” the courtroom attendant interjected.

Minutes later: “Pardon me… juror number 11 has just disconnected,” the courtroom attendant interrupted again.

Some legal observers have speculated that the losing party in the trial will have an easy avenue for appeal given the persistent interruptions and difficulties.

Trial overlap

A fifth Roundup trial was starting jury selection this week in a case involving a boy with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The child, Ezra Clark, is the subject of a trial beginning this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court. 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.

Opening statements in the Clark trial are scheduled to begin Wednesday morning.

Bayer denies any cancer connection

Bayer has earmarked more than $14 billion to try to settle the litigation and has announced it will stop selling glyphosate-based herbicides to consumers by 2023. But the company still insists that the herbicides it inherited from Monsanto do not cause cancer.

Last month Bayer filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the high court’s review of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Hardeman v. Monsanto. 

The move is widely seen as Bayer’s best hope for putting an end to claims that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the company failed to warn users of the risks.

During the month-long trial in 2019, lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman presented jurors with a range of scientific research showing cancer connections to Monsanto’s herbicides as well as evidence of many Monsanto strategies aimed at suppressing the scientific information about the risks of its products. Internal Monsanto documents showed the company’s scientists had engaged in secretly ghost-writing scientific papers that the company then used to help convince regulators of product safety.