Dying man asks California Supreme Court to restore jury award in Monsanto Roundup case

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The school groundskeeper who won the first-ever trial over allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup causes cancer is asking the California Supreme Court to restore $250 million in punitive damages awarded by the jury who heard his case but then slashed by an appeals court to $20.5 million.

Notably, the appeal by plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson has larger implications than his own individual case. Johnson’s lawyer are urging the court to address a legal twist that can leave people such as Johnson who are facing death in the near term with lower damage awards than others expected to live many years in suffering and pain.

“It is long past time for California courts to recognize, as other courts do, that life itself has value and that those who maliciously deprive a plaintiff of years of life should be made to fully compensate that plaintiff and be punished accordingly,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote in their request for the state supreme court review. “The jury ascribed meaningful value to Mr. Johnson’s life, and for that he is grateful. He asks this Court to respect the jury’s decision and restore that value. ”

A unanimous jury found in August 2018 that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, known best by the brand name Roundup, caused Johnson to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The jury further found that Monsanto acted to hide the risks of its products in conduct so egregious that the company should pay Johnson $250 million in punitive damages on top of $39 million in past and future compensatory damages.

Upon appeal from Monsanto, which was purchased by the German company Bayer AG in 2018, the trial judge reduced the $289 million to $78 million. Monsanto appealed seeking either a new trial or a reduced award. Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of his full damage award.

The appeals court in the case then cut the award to $20.5 million, citing the fact that Johnson was expected to live only a short time.

The appeals court reduced the damages award despite finding there was “abundant” evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused Johnson’s cancer and that “there was overwhelming evidence that Johnson has suffered, and will continue to suffer for the rest of his life, significant pain and suffering.”

The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on Monsanto’s efforts to manipulate the scientific record on glyphosate and Roundup and its efforts to quiet critics and influence regulators.  Lawyers for Johnson presented jurors with internal company emails and other records showing Monsanto scientists discussing ghostwriting scientific papers to try to shore up support for the safety of the company’s products, along with communications detailing plans to discredit critics, and to quash a government evaluation of the toxicity of glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto’s products.

Johnson’s trial victory spurred a frenzied filing of tens of thousands of additional lawsuits. Monsanto lost three out of three trials before agreeing this June to pay more than $10 billion to settle close to 100,000 such claims.

The settlement is still in flux, however, as Bayer wrestles with how to forestall future litigation.

In an interview, Johnson said he knew the legal battle with Monsanto could continue for many more years but he was committed to trying to hold the company accountable. He has managed to keep his illness in check so far with regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but is not certain how long that will continue.

“I don’t think any amount would be enough to punish that company,” Johnson said.

Some U.S. Roundup plaintiffs balk at signing Bayer settlement deals; $160,000 average payout eyed

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Plaintiffs in the U.S. Roundup litigation are starting to learn the details of what Bayer AG’s $10 billion settlement of cancer claims actually means for them individually, and some are not liking what they see.

Bayer said in late June it had negotiated settlements with several major plaintiffs’ law firms in a deal that would effectively close out the bulk of more than 100,000 pending claims against Monsanto, which was purchased by Bayer in 2018. Plaintiffs in the litigation allege they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma from exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides made with a chemical called glyphosate, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

While the deal initially seemed like good news for the plaintiffs – some who’ve struggled for years with cancer treatments and others who sued on behalf of deceased spouses – many are finding they could end up with little to no money, depending upon a range of factors. The law firms, however, could pocket hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s a win for the law firms and a slap in the face of the harmed” said one plaintiff, who did not want to be named.

Plaintiffs are being told they must decide in the next few weeks if they’re going to accept the settlements, even though they won’t know how much they will personally be paid until much later. All the settlement deals order the plaintiffs not to talk publicly about the details, threatening them with sanctions if they discuss the settlements with anyone other than “immediate family members” or a financial advisor.

This has angered some who say they are considering rejecting the settlements in favor of seeking out other law firms to handle their claims. This reporter has reviewed documents sent to multiple plaintiffs.

For those who do agree, payments could be made as early as February, though the process of paying all the plaintiffs is expected to stretch out a year or more. Communications sent out from law firms to their Roundup clients sketch out both the process each cancer-stricken individual will need to go through to obtain a financial payout and what those payouts might amount to. The terms of the deals vary from law firm to law firm, meaning similarly situated plaintiffs may end up with vastly different individual settlements.

One of the stronger deals appears to be one negotiated by The Miller Firm, and even that is disappointing to some of the firm’s clients. In communications to clients, the firm said it was able to negotiate roughly $849 million from Bayer to cover the claims of more than 5,000 Roundup clients. The firm estimates the average gross settlement value for each plaintiff at roughly $160,000. That gross amount will further be reduced by the deduction of attorneys’ fees and costs.

Though attorneys’ fees can vary by firm and plaintiff, many in the Roundup litigation are charging 30-40 percent in contingency fees.

To be eligible for the settlement, plaintiffs must have medical records supporting diagnosis of certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and be able to show they were exposed at least a year before their diagnosis.

The Miller Firm has been at the forefront of the Roundup litigation since the outset, unearthing many of the damning internal Monsanto documents that helped win all three Roundup trials held to date. The Miller Firm handled two of those trials, bringing in lawyers from the Los Angeles firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman to help with the case of  Dewayne “Lee” Johnson after Miller Firm founder Mike Miller was severely injured in an accident just prior to trial. The two firms additionally worked together in winning the case of husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.  Johnson was awarded $289 million and the Pilliods were awarded more than $2 billion though the trial judges in each case lowered the awards.

Earlier this month, a California appeals court rejected Monsanto’s effort to overturn the Johnson verdict, ruling that there was “abundant” evidence that Roundup products caused Johnson’s cancer but reducing Johnson’s award to $20.5 million. Appeals are still pending in the other two verdicts against Monsanto.

Scoring Plaintiffs

To determine how much each plaintiff receives from the settlement with Bayer, a third-party administrator will score each individual using factors that include the type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma each plaintiff  developed; the plaintiff’s age at diagnosis; the severity of the person’s cancer and the extent of treatment they endured; other risk factors; and the amount of exposure they had to Monsanto herbicides.

One element of the settlement that caught many plaintiffs off guard was learning that those who ultimately receive money from Bayer will have to use their funds to pay back part of the costs of their cancer treatments that were covered by Medicare or private insurance. With some cancer treatments running into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars, that could quickly erase a plaintiff’s payout. The law firms are lining up third-party contractors who will negotiate with the insurance providers to seek discounted reimbursements, the plaintiffs have been told. Typically in this sort of mass tort litigation, those medical liens can be substantially reduced, the law firms said.

In one aspect of the deal welcomed by plaintiffs, the settlements will be structured to avoid tax liability, according to the information provided to plaintiffs.

Risks in Not Settling  

The law firms must get a majority of their plaintiffs to agree to the terms of the settlements in order for them to proceed. According to the information provided to plaintiffs, settlements are desired now because of a number of risks associated with continuing to pursue additional trials. Among the risks identified:

  • Bayer has threatened to file for bankruptcy, and if the company did take that route, settling Roundup claims would take far longer and likely ultimately result in far less money for plaintiffs.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a letter last August telling Monsanto that the agency won’t allow for a cancer warning on Roundup. That helps Monsanto’s future chances of prevailing in court.
  • Covid-related court delays mean additional Roundup trials are unlikely for a year or more.

It is not unusual for plaintiffs in mass tort litigation to walk away disappointed even with seemingly large settlements negotiated for their cases.  The 2019 book “Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation” by Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, the Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law at the University of Georgia,  makes the case that a lack of checks and balances in mass tort litigation benefits nearly everyone involved except the plaintiffs.

Burch cites as an example litigation over the acid-reflux medicine Propulsid, and said she found that of the 6,012 plaintiffs who entered into the settlement program, only 37 ultimately received any money. The rest received no payouts but had already agreed to dismiss their lawsuits as a condition of entering into the settlement program. Those 37 plaintiffs collectively received little more than $6.5 million (roughly $175,000 each on average), while the lead law firms for the plaintiffs received $27 million, according to Burch,

Setting aside what individual plaintiffs may or may not walk away with,  some legal observers close to the Roundup litigation said a greater good has been achieved with the exposure of corporate wrongdoing by Monsanto.

Among the evidence that has emerged through the litigation are internal Monsanto documents showing the company engineered the publishing of scientific papers that falsely appeared to be created solely by independent scientists; the funding of, and collaborating with, front groups that were used to try to discredit scientists reporting harm with Monsanto’s herbicides; and collaborations with certain officials inside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect and promote Monsanto’s position that its products were not cancer-causing.

Several countries around the world, as well as local governments and school districts, have moved to ban glyphosate herbicides, and/or other pesticides because of the revelations of the Roundup litigation.

(Story first appeared in Environmental Health News.)

Appeals court hears arguments over Monsanto’s first Roundup trial loss

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A California jury decision blaming a Monsanto herbicide for a school groundskeeper’s cancer was deeply flawed and incompatible with the law, a Monsanto attorney told a panel of appellate judges on Tuesday.

The company’s glyphosate-based herbicides – popularly known as Roundup – have the full backing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “regulators around the world,” attorney David Axelrad told judges with the California Court of Appeal First Appellate District.

Axelrad said Monsanto had no duty to warn anyone about an alleged cancer risk given the regulatory consensus that its weed killers are safe.

It is “fundamentally unfair to hold Monsanto liable and punish it for a product label that accurately reflects not only EPA determination but a worldwide consensus that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” he argued in the hour-long hearing. The proceeding was held by telephone because of COVID-19 restrictions on courthouse access.

Associate Justice Gabriel Sanchez questioned the validity of that argument:  “You have animal studies… mechanism studies, you have control case studies,” he said, addressing Monsanto’s attorney. “There are a  number of, it seems, published peer reviewed studies… that suggest a statistically significant relationship between glyphosate and lymphoma. So I don’t know that I would agree with you that it has unanimous consensus. Certainly the regulatory agencies seem to be on one side. But there is a lot of other evidence on the other. ”

The appeal stems from the 2018 jury decision in San Francisco Superior Court that ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, including $250 million in punitive damages.

The trial judge in the Johnson case lowered the award to $78.5 million. But Monsanto appealed the verdict, asking the court to either reverse the trial decision and enter a judgment for Monsanto or reverse and remand the case for a new trial or at least sharply reduce the damages.  Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of the full jury award.

Johnson is one of tens of thousands of people from around the United States who have sued Monsanto alleging Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by the company cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company spent decades covering up the risks.

Johnson gained “preference” status because doctors said his life expectancy was short and that he would likely die within 18 months of the trial. Johnson has confounded the doctors and remains alive and undergoing regular treatments.

Monsanto’s loss to Johnson marked the first of three Roundup trial losses for the company, which was acquired by Germany’s Bayer AG in June 2018 just as the Johnson trial started.

The jury in the Johnson case specifically found – among other things – that Monsanto was negligent in failing to warn Johnson of the cancer risk of its herbicides. But Monsanto argues that the verdict was flawed because of exclusion of key evidence and what the company’s attorneys call the “distortion of reliable science.”

If the appeals court does not order a new trial, Monsanto asked that the judges at least reduce the portion of the jury award for “future noneconomic damages” from $33 million to $1.5 million and to wipe out the punitive damages altogether.

Johnson’s trial attorneys had argued that he should get $1 million a year for pain and suffering over the 33 additional years that he would likely live if he had not gotten cancer.

But Monsanto’s attorneys have said Johnson should get only $1 million a year for pain and suffering during his actual life expectancy or $1.5 million for an 18-month expected future span.

On Tuesday, Axelrad reiterated that point: “Sure a plaintiff can recover during his lifetime for the pain and suffering that might be occasioned by knowing that he has a shortened life expectancy,” he told the judicial panel. “But you cannot recover for pain and suffering that is unlikely to occur in years where you will no longer be living and that is what the plaintiff received in this case.”

Axelrad told the justices that the company had been falsely painted as engaging in misconduct but in fact had properly followed the science and the law. He said, for example, though Johnson’s attorney had accused Monsanto of ghost-writing scientific papers, company scientists had only made “editorial suggestions” for several papers published in the scientific literature.

“Whether or not Monsanto could have been more forthcoming in identifying its involvement in those studies the bottom line is that those studies produced no false or misleading information and there is no indication that any of the authors of those studies would have changed their opinion had Monsanto not provided editorial comment,” he said.

Axelrad said there was no malice and no basis for punitive damages to be leveled against Monsanto. The company’s defense of its glyphosate-based herbicides over the years has been “entirely reasonable and in good faith,” he said.

“There is absolutely no evidence that Monsanto distributed false, misleading or incomplete information, no evidence that its actions prevented the dissemination of information to regulatory agencies needed to review the scientific evidence, no evidence that its actions compromised the ultimate regulatory decision making and no evidence that Monsanto refused to conduct a test or study in order to conceal information about a risk of harm or prevent the discovery of new information about the science of glyphosate,” he said.

Johnson attorney Mike Miller said that Monsanto’s lawyers were attempting to get the appellate court to retry the facts of the case, which is not its role.

“Monsanto misunderstands the appellate function. It is not to reweigh the facts. The facts that were just argued by Monsanto’s counsel were rejected thoroughly by the jury and rejected by the trial judge…” Miller said.

The appellate court should uphold the damages the jury awarded, including the punitive damages,  because Monsanto’s conduct surrounding the science and safety of its glyphosate herbicides was “egregious,” Miller said.

The evidence presented at the Johnson trial showed Monsanto engaged in the ghostwriting of scientific papers while it failed to adequately test its formulated glyphosate herbicides for carcinogenicity risks. The company then initiated “unprecedented” attacks on the credibility of  international cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, he told the judicial panel.

“In punitive damages, as you assess the reprehensibility of Monsanto you must factor in the wealth of Monsanto. And the award must be enough to sting,” said Miller. “Under California law unless it changes the conduct it hasn’t fit the purpose of punitive damages.”

The appellate panel has 90 days to issue a ruling.

Reporting From Court

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Documents from Day 1 in the Hardeman trial are posted here.

See Transcript of proceedings.

See Plaintiff’s Opening Slide Deck and Monsanto’s Opening Slide Deck

3:30 p.m. –Jury is dismissed by judge but lawyers in Roundup cancer trial still discussing how evidence can or can’t be used. He’s still furious over plaintiff’s lawyer Aimee Wagstaff daring to talk about 1983 @EPA dox showing cancer concerns with glyphosate.

Judge is ripping into Aimee Wagstaff again saying he wants to sanction her $1,000 and maybe the whole plaintiff’s legal team as well. Calling her actions “incredibly dumb.”

2:30p.m. post lunch updates:

  • As Monsanto Roundup cancer trial resumes, plaintiff’s expert witness Beate Ritz talks to jurors about risk ratios, confidence intervals & statistical significance of cancer science. Touts the value of meta-analyses. @Bayer
  • Dr. Ritz is testifying about the various studies showing increased risk for cancer from glyphosate exposure.
  • Plaintiff Edwin Hardeman & his wife watch quietly, but during a break express frustration over how much Judge Chhabria has limited evidence the jury is hearing.
  • Sure-fire way to draw an objection from @Bayer Monsanto attorneys at Roundup cancer trial: mention @IARCWHO scientific classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.
  • Day one of @Bayer Monsanto Roundup cancer trial concludes after lengthy testimony from scientist Beate Ritz walking jurors through research that shows risks of NHL from exposure to glyphosate herbicides. Judge thanks jurors for being attentive; tells them to stay away from media.

  • Only one day in and Roundup cancer trial is losing a juror. One of the two men on jury claims work hardship; he can’t afford to lose paycheck. That leaves 7 women and 1 man to decide case. Verdict must be unanimous for plaintiff to win.

11:38 a.m.Evidence of the judge’s ire in opening round of federal Roundup cancer trial: pre trial order for plaintiff’s attorney to show cause why she should not be sanctioned by 8 p.m. tonight.

11:10 a.m. Monsanto/Bayer wraps up its opening and now preparing for first witness, plaintiff scientist Beate Ritz. More updates from opening statement:

  • Plaintiff’s attorney calls for sidebar as those statements were barred by pre-trial orders but judge overrules her.
  • Now Monsanto attorney shows chart saying while glyphosate use has increased over decades, rates of NHL have not. He then says that despite @IARCWHO classification as glyphosate as probable carcinogen @EPA & foreign regulators disagree.
  • Defense attorney for Monsanto @Bayer on a roll; telling jurors all about the Agricultural Health Study, which showed no ties between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Lawyer makes point Monsanto had nothing to do with the study.

10:45 a.m.Now it’s @Bayer Monsanto’s turn for opening statements – attorney Brian Stekloff tells jury “Roundup did not cause Mr. Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”

  • Judge just orders another Monsanto @Bayer slide removed, interrupting defense attorney opening statement. Playing hardball with both sides.
  • Plaintiff’s attorney objects to one of Monsanto attorneys slides; judge agrees and slide is removed. Defense attorney making case that Hardeman’s history of Hepatitis C likely to blame for his NHL.
  • He tells jurors NHL is common type of cancer and most NHL victims are not Roundup users; there is no test a doctor can run to tell a patient his disease was or was not caused by Roundup.

10:15 updates on opening remarks of plaintiff’s attorney Aimee Wagstaff:

  • Judge now threatening to sanction plaintiff’s attorney and pondering if he should refuse to allow jury to see the plaintiff’s slides. @Bayer Monsanto lawyer says yes. Aimee asks to address his concern; judge cuts her off.
  • Judge now dismisses jury for break and then RIPS into plaintiff’s attorney – says she has “crossed the line” and is “totally inappropriate” in her opening statements. Says this is her “final warning.” Never a dull moment at the @Bayer Monsanto Roundup cancer trial.
  • Judge also tells her to “move on” when she tries to explain that @EPA only assesses glyphosate and not whole product.
  • She is allowed brief mention of @IARCWHO classification of glyphosate as probable human carcinogen but judge cuts her off before she can say much.
  • In opening statement for @Bayer Monsanto Roundup cancer trial plaintiff’s attorney points to new meta-analysis showing compelling ties to cancer (see Guardian story).
  • In opening statement for Roundup cancer trial plaintiff’s attorney reads from 1980s-era @EPA memo “glyphosate is suspect” & goes through the story of how Monsanto engineered a reversal of EPA concerns. Jurors look a little confused by all this science stuff.

9:35 a.m. Now plaintiff attorney telling the story of the 1983 mouse study that caused @EPAscientists to find glyphosate cancer causing… before Monsanto convinced them not to. oops. Judge cuts her off again. Sidebar. @BayerMonsanto has to love this. For more on the 1983 mouse study, see 2017 article, “Of Mice, Monsanto and a Mysterious Tumor.

9:30 a.m. The main theme this morning is the judge is giving no leeway to the plaintiff’s attorney, via @careygillam:

8:49 a.m. Judge Chhabria is showing an early tight rein on this Roundup cancer trial. He stopped plaintiff’s attorney Aimee Wagstaff within minutes of her opening for a sidebar. Wagstaff opened by introducing the wife of the plaintiff, and began telling the story of their life and Hardeman finding the lump in his neck. The judge interrupted to tell Wagstaff to stick to comments dealing with causation only.

8:10 a.m. “Court is now in session”. Courtroom is packed for opening statements in Roundup cancer trial. Right off the bat, Monsanto Bayer, and plaintiff’s attorneys are already in conflict over evidence to be introduced.

8:00 a.m. And we’re off. Six months after a California jury decided Monsanto’s weed killers caused a groundskeeper’s cancer, another California jury is getting ready to hear similar arguments against Monsanto.

This time the case is being heard in federal court, not state court. Importantly, the judge has agreed with a request from Monsanto to try the case in two phases with evidence of potential negligent and deceptive conduct by Monsanto withheld during the first phase to allow the jury to focus solely on evidence pertaining to the question of whether or not the company’s products were to blame for the plaintiff’s cancer.

Plainitiff Edwin Hardeman suffers from B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which was diagnosed in February 2015, one month before the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicide brands, as a “probable human carcinogen.

Hardeman used Roundup products regularly to treat weeds and overgrowth on a 56-acre tract he owned in Sonoma County. Documents filed in federal court pertaining to the Hardeman trial can be found here.

Seven women and two men were selected as jurors to hear the Hardeman case. The judge has said the case should run through the end of March. Yesterday Judge Chhabria denied Monsanto a motion for summary judgement.