She has brain cancer, while her husband suffers from a cancer that has invaded his pelvis and spine. Both blame their long use of the popular weed-killing chemical known as Roundup, and the California married couple today get their chance to put Monsanto on trial.
Alva and Alberta Pilliod, both in their 70s, are plaintiffs in the third lawsuit against Monsanto to go to trial. Twelve jurors and five alternates were selected earlier this week, and opening statements get underway this morning in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, California.
The Pilliod trial marks the latest in a snowballing series of courtroom challenges to the legacy of Monsanto – a company that built a reputation as an agrochemical powerhouse before its acquisition last summer by German-based Bayer AG.
As was alleged in two previous trials – both won by plaintiffs – the Pilliods claim their use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide products caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto has failed to warn consumers about the risks while suppressing and manipulating the scientific record about its products.
“We are very angry. We hope to get justice,” Alberta Pilliod told the Guardian last fall, noting that the couple did not use protective gear when they sprayed because they believed company marketing that the products were safe. She said they would not have used Roundup the way they did if they knew the risks. “If we had been given accurate information, if we had been warned, this wouldn’t have happened.” Alva said the cancer had destroyed their lives: “It has been a miserable few years.”
On Wednesday, a six-member jury in federal court in San Francisco awarded plaintiff Edwin Hardeman just over $80 million, including $75 million in punitive damages, on claims similar to those made by the Pilliods. Specifically the jury awarded past economic loss damages of $200,967.10, past non-economic loss damages of $3,066,677, future economic loss damages of $2 million and punitive damages of $75 million.
And last August, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was awarded $289 million by a unanimous jury also on findings that his use of Monsanto’s herbicides caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Monsanto covered up the risks. The judge in that case lowered the award to $78 million. Monsanto has appealed.
Cancer has been very hard on the Pilliod couple, who have two children and four grandchildren. Alva was diagnosed in 2011 and has been through multiple rounds of treatment. Alberta Pilliod has been hospitalized repeatedly since her diagnosis in 2015. And though both Alberta and her husband are currently considered in remission, Alberta takes ongoing medications she calls ‘maintenance chemo,” and she has suffered hearing loss, double vision and a loss of balance – all expected to be permanent, she said in an interview.
The Pilliods used Roundup regularly from the mid -1970s until only a few years ago on multiple properties they owned. The couple said they chose Roundup because they believed it was safe for them and for the deer, ducks and other animals that roamed the acreage the Pilliods treated with Roundup products. Alberta Pilliod said in an interview she thought Roundup was “like sugar water.”
Glyphosate, patented by Monsanto in 1974, is the most widely used weed killer in the world and worth billions of dollars in revenues. It is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products and hundreds of other weed killing products sold around the world. But while Monsanto and other chemical companies insist the products do not cause cancer, the evidence presented in the first two trials includes numerous published and peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the products are carcinogenic.
The Pilliod suit echoes others in claiming that “Monsanto led a prolonged campaign of misinformation to convince government agencies, farmers and the general public that Roundup was safe” despite knowing about the scientific evidence showing it was not safe.
Monsanto’s new owner Bayer maintains that claims tying its herbicides to cancer are baseless and asserts its products have been labeled with proper warnings and instructions. In its response to the Pilliod lawsuit, Monsanto “denies that Plaintiffs sustained or will sustain any injury, damage or loss by reason of any act or omission of Monsanto.”
Lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman said in a video interview that Bayer and Monsanto needed to start acting responsibly. “At some point this company needs to come clean and own up to the fact that its product is dangerous,” said attorney Jennifer Moore.
Judge Winifred Smith is presiding over the Pilliod case. Attorneys for the plaintiffs anticipate the trial will last about a month. Twelve jurors and five alternates have been selected. Pilliod v. Monsanto is the first case in the California Roundup Judicial Council Coordination Proceedings (JCCP). A list of relevant court documents can be found on the USRTK Monsanto Papers page.