Trimmed-Down Testimony as Monsanto Cancer Trial Winds Down

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(Transcript of today’s proceedings) 

Lawyers for Edwin Hardeman have substantially cut down the number of witnesses and evidence to present to jurors who must decide if Monsanto and its new owner Bayer are liable for Hardeman’s development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after years of use of Monsanto’s Roundup. They have but a few hours left allotted to them by the judge, who has said he expects closing arguments by Tuesday.

The six-member jury team decided last week that Roundup was in fact a substantial factor in causing Hardeman’s cancer. The trial is now focused on whether or not Monsanto should be blamed, and if so, how much – if anything – the company should pay Hardeman in damages.

But making that case may be difficult given the short amount of time the plaintiff’s attorneys have left in the total “time clock” that Judge Vince Chhabria set. He gave each side 30 hours to make their case.

Hardeman’s attorneys used most of their time in the first half of the trial and now have but a few remaining hours. As a result, they have informed the judge that they will not be calling planned testimony from Monsanto executives Daniel Goldstein, Steven Gould, David Heering, or Daniel Jenkins. They also will not be presenting planned testimony from Roger McClellan, editor of the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology (CRT), and at least four other witnesses.

McClellan was overseeing CRT when the journal published a series of papers in September 2016 that rebuked the finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. The papers purported to be written by independent scientists who found that the weight of evidence showed the weed killer was unlikely to pose any carcinogenic risk to people. But internal Monsanto documents show that the papers were conceptualized from the outset as a strategy by Monsanto to discredit IARC. One of Monsanto’s top scientists not only reviewed the manuscripts but had a hand in drafting and editing them, though that was not disclosed by CRT.

Hardeman’s attorneys plan about three more hours of testimony from various witnesses, including former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant, who received an exit payment of about $32 million when Bayer AG bought Monsanto last summer.

Discussion of Damages

Both sides have already agreed that Hardeman has suffered a loss of approximately $200,000 in economic damages, but Hardeman’s attorneys are expected to ask for many tens of millions of dollars, and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars for total damages, including punitive.

Lawyers for Monsanto have objected to any discussion of Monsanto’s wealth and the $63 billion Bayer paid for Monsanto, but the judge has allowed some financial information to be shared with jurors.

Jurors may not ever be told exactly how much money Monsanto has made over the years in sales of its glyphosate herbicides, but a look at just one year of financials – 2012, the year Hardeman stopped using Roundup – shows the company made roughly $2 billion in total profits that year.

Judge Chhabria noted in discussions with attorneys out of the presence of the jury that Hardeman’s attorneys might want to argue that Monsanto spent a lot of money on advertising and payouts to executives rather than conducting long-term safety studies on its products. The money issues might be relevant to jurors’ deliberation over potential punitive damages, Chhabria said.

“It may be relevant to Monsanto’s ability to pay, but it seems even more relevant to the issue of what was knowable — both liability and punitive damages, whether Monsanto’s conduct was extreme and outrageous,” Judge Chhabria said.  “Why can’t they argue, look at all the money Monsanto has been willing to spend on advertising and it’s not willing to, you know, conduct any sort of objective inquiry into the safety of its product.”

“It is not as much about the company’s ability to pay as it is about the company’s conduct with respect to the safety of its product,” Chhabria said. “Look at all these things that the company is spending extreme amounts of money on, and it’s not willing to lift a finger to conduct any sort of objective inquiry about the safety of its product.  That, I assume, is their argument.”

Chhabria said the evidence of Monsanto’s finance could be “probative” of the  “outrageousness of the company’s conduct.”

Pilliod Trial Beginning 

A third Roundup cancer trial gets underway this week in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, California. Alva and Alberta Pilliod,  husband and wife, take on Monsanto and Bayer with claims they both are suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma due to exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup products. Voir dire for jury selection begins today in Oakland and opening statements are expected to begin Thursday.  See documents related to that case at this link. 

The judge in the Pilliod case rejected Monsanto’s request to bifurcate the trial. The legal team presenting the Pilliod case includes Los Angeles attorney Brent Wisner, who gained notoriety for the win by plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson over Monsanto in the first-ever Roundup cancer trial last summer.

More Details on Limits Too Large Volumes of Evidence

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For those wanting more details on the reasoning and ramifications of a federal court judge’s decision to limit large volumes of evidence related to Monsanto’s internal communications and conduct from the first federal trial, this transcript of the Jan. 4 hearing on the matter is informative.

Here is an exchange between plaintiff’s attorney Brent Wisner and Judge Vince Chhabria that illustrates the frustration and fear plaintiff’s attorneys have over the limitation of their evidence to direct causation, with much of the evidence dealing with Monsanto’s conduct and internal communications restricted. The judge has said that evidence would only come in at a second phase of the trial if jurors in a first phase find that Monsanto’s Roundup products directly contributed substantially to the plaintiff’s cancer.

MR. WISNER: Here is a great example: Monsanto’s chief toxicologist,
Donna Farmer, she writes in an e-mail: We can’t say Roundup
doesn’t cause cancer. We have not done the necessary testing
on the formulated product.
THE COURT: That would not come in — my gut reaction
is that that would not come in in the first phase.
MR. WISNER: So that is literally Monsanto’s chief
toxicologist — a person who has more knowledge about Roundup
than anyone else in the world — saying —
THE COURT: The question is whether it causes cancer,
not whether — not Farmer’s opinion on what Monsanto can say or
not say. It is about what the science actually shows.
MR. WISNER: Sure. She is literally talking about the
science that they didn’t do.
THE COURT: My gut is that that is actually really a
fairly easy question, and the answer to that fairly easy
question is that that doesn’t come in in the first phase.”

Stay tuned….

Attorneys Scramble Ahead of Next Trial

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With the next trial in the mass Roundup cancer litigation set for Feb. 25 in San Francisco, attorneys for Monsanto and plaintiffs are scrambling to take more than two dozen depositions in the waning weeks of December and into January even as they debate how the trial should be organized.

Monsanto attorneys on Dec. 10 filed a motion to “reverse bifurcate” the next trial, Edwin Hardeman V. Monsanto (3:16-cv-00525). Monsanto wants the jury only to hear evidence focused on specific medical causation first – did its herbicide cause the plaintiff’s cancer – with a second phase that would address Monsanto’s liability and damages only necessary if the jury found in plaintiff’s favor in the first phase. See Monsanto’s argument here. Judge Chhabria granted a request from plaintiff’s attorneys to be allowed until Thursday to file their response.

Edwin Hardeman and his wife spent many years living on a 56-acre, former exotic animal refuge in Sonoma County, California where Hardeman routinely used Roundup products to treat overgrown grasses and weeds since the 1980s. He was diagnosed with B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in February 2015, just a month before the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen.

Hardeman’s case was selected as the first to be tried in federal court in San Francisco (Northern District of California) in front of Judge Vince Chhabria. Attorney Aimee Wagstaff of Denver, Colorado, is lead plaintiff’s counsel on the case. Attorney Brent Wisner of the Baum Hedlund law firm in Los Angeles, and the lawyer credited with leading the victory in Dewayne Lee Johnson’s historic August victory over Monsanto, had been expected to help try the case but now has another case scheduled to begin in March. That case is Pilliod, et al V. Monsanto in Alameda County Superior Court. See related documents on the Monsanto Papers main page.

Monsanto’s new owner Bayer AG is not content to rely on Monsanto’s trial team that lost the Johnson case and is bringing in its own legal defense team. The Bayer team, which helped the German company win litigation over the Xarelto blood thinner, now includes Pamela Yates and Andrew Solow of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer and Brian Stekloff of Wilkinson Walsh Eskovitz.

Hearings on specific causation issues are set in the Hardeman case for Feb. 4, 6, 11, and 13 with jury selection scheduled for Feb. 20. Opening arguments would then begin Feb. 25, according to the current schedule.

Bay Area Man vs. Monsanto: First Trial Over Roundup Cancer Claims Set to Begin

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By Carey Gillam

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson has led what many might call an unremarkable life. The 46-year-old father and husband spent several years working as a school groundskeeper and spending free time teaching his two young sons to play football. But this week he takes center stage in a global debate over the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides as he takes Monsanto to court on claims that repeated exposure to the company’s popular Roundup herbicide left him with terminal cancer.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos was assigned Monday to oversee the trial, and jury selection is tentatively expected to begin Thursday, June 21, with opening statements possible by June 27. The courtroom showdown could last three to four weeks, lawyers involved estimate, and will shine a spotlight on decades of scientific research and internal Monsanto documents that relate to the testing and marketing of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide and the active ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.

Though Johnson is the lone plaintiff in the lawsuit, his case is considered a bellwether for roughly 4,000 other plaintiffs also suing Monsanto over allegations that exposure to Roundup caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Another case is scheduled to go to trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.

Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years.

The lawsuits, which have been piling up in court dockets around the U.S., not only challenge Monsanto’s position that its widely used herbicides are proven safe, but they also assert that the company has intentionally suppressed evidence of the risks of its weed killing products, misleading both regulators and consumers in a dangerous deception.

The litigation, proceeding both in federal and state courts, began after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate—the active ingredient in Roundup—as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on years of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides.

Monsanto and allies in the agrochemical industry have blasted the litigation and the IARC classification as lacking in validity, countering that decades of safety studies prove that glyphosate does not cause cancer when used as designed. Monsanto has cited findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory authorities as backing its defense. The company can also point to an EPA draft risk assessment of glyphosate on its side, which concluded that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic.

“Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product,” Monsanto states on its website. “Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide.”

Glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto, which became a subsidiary of German-based Bayer AG on June 8, and several other companies selling glyphosate-based herbicides. Monsanto brought the pesticide to market in 1974 and the weed killer has been used prominently for decades by farmers in food production and by municipalities to eradicate weeds in public parks and playgrounds, and by homeowners on residential lawns.

Monsanto had sought to delay the Johnson case, just as it has sought to delay and/or dismiss the others brought against it. But the trial was expedited because he is not expected to live much longer after being diagnosed in 2014 with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called mycosis fungoides.

A Death Sentence

According to court records, Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years and applied multiple treatments of Monsanto’s herbicides to the San Francisco-area school properties from 2012 until at least late 2015, including after he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. His job entailed mixing and spraying hundreds of gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides around school properties. He used various Roundup products, but mostly Roundup PRO, a highly concentrated version of the weed killer. After developing a skin rash in the summer of 2014 he reported to doctors that it seemed to worsen after he sprayed the herbicide. In August of that year he was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma but continued his work until 2015 when he underwent several rounds of chemotherapy only to learn in September 2015 that he likely had but 18 months to live.

In a deposition taken in January, Johnson’s treating physician testified that more than 80 percent of his body was covered by lesions and his diagnosis continued to be terminal. Still, Johnson has improved since starting a new drug treatment and plans to attend some of the trial if possible, his attorneys said.

Johnson has not led an unblemished life; Monsanto uncovered an aggravated assault charge against him from the early 1990s, along with a misdemeanor weapons charge and a domestic abuse complaint against the mother of his oldest child. The company elicited deposition testimony from Johnson that he failed tests for pesticide applicators three times, and sprayed the pesticide without a certified applicator license. Johnson wore proper protective gear over his clothing but was accidentally drenched in the pesticide at least once when mixing it.

Monsanto’s lawyers will argue other factors could be to blame for Johnson’s cancer, and that its weed killer played no role.

Johnson’s attorneys have shrugged off any issues regarding Johnson’s personal behavior or other potential causes for his disease, and say in court filings they will offer evidence at trial that Monsanto “for decades, engaged in a shocking degree of scientific fraud and manipulation of the scientific literature with respect to Roundup” to cover up the evidence that it does cause cancer.

The trial evidence will include information that Monsanto ghostwrote articles relied on by the EPA, IARC and California’s environmental regulators; rewarded employees for ghostwriting; and actively suppressed the publication of information that revealed the harm associated with glyphosate and Roundup. Johnson’s attorneys say internal Monsanto documents show extensive “manipulation” of the scientific record, and clearly improper and fraudulent interactions with regulators.

Johnson’s attorneys intend to call 10 current and former Monsanto employees to the stand.

“We’re going to get them here. We have the goods,” said Brent Wisner, who is one of three attorneys representing Johnson at trial. “If the evidence we have is allowed in, Monsanto is in trouble.”

Lead Lawyer Out

Wisner was only brought in to help try to case within the last few weeks after lead attorney Mike Miller suffered a near-fatal accident while kite surfing and remains too severely injured to try the case. Wisner’s role is key as he is set to deliver both the opening and closing statements for Johnson’s case in Miller’s absence.

Monsanto filed a motion on June 18 seeking to exclude Wisner from trying the case, however, claiming he has been acting as a “PR man,” and lobbyist against glyphosate, particularly in Europe, where glyphosate has been under intense regulatory scrutiny. Monsanto also cited Wisner’s release in August 2017 of hundreds of pages of internal Monsanto documents turned over in discovery that the company had wanted to keep sealed, a tactic that earned Wisner a rebuke from the judge in the federal multidistrict litigation pending against Monsanto. Monsanto’s lawyers argue that the internal corporate communications have been intentionally presented out of context by Wisner and other plaintiff’s attorneys to make it appear as though the company engaged in deceptive practices when it did not.

Wisner’s activities put him in violation of a California “advocate-witness” rule, Monsanto contended in its filing.

Araceli Johnson, Lee Johnson’s wife, and their two sons. Photo credits: Lee Johnson

In addition to trying to exclude the lawyer, Monsanto is seeking to exclude reams of evidence, including internal emails written by its scientists, arguments that it deceived the EPA, evidence of fraud committed by laboratories, and testimony from Johnson’s expert witnesses.

Judge Bolanos will hear arguments on Wednesday regarding that motion and more than a dozen others regarding what evidence will and will not be allowed at trial.

Both sides say the case and the outcome are important in a larger sense. If the jury finds in favor of Johnson it could encourage additional litigation and damage claims some of the lawyers involved estimate could run into hundreds of millions of dollars. If the jury sides with Monsanto, other cases could be in jeopardy. Additionally, a victory for Monsanto in this first case could ease regulatory questions dogging the company.

As for Johnson, he will try to attend some of the trial, and will testify, but will not likely be there for it all, said Wisner. Johnson’s wife, Araceli Johnson, will be called to testify, as will two of his co-workers and his doctors.

“Right now he’s on borrowed time. He’s not going to come to most of the trial,” said Wisner. “The guy is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it. It’s unbelievably horrible.”

This article was originally posted on EcoWatch. Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group.