I Won a Historic Lawsuit But May Not Live to Get the Money

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This article was originally published in Time Magazine.

By Carey Gillam

Dewayne Anthony Lee Johnson has always just gone by Lee. He lived a modest life for 42 years, and was devastated when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. Now 46, as he struggles with his advancing illness, Johnson has found sudden celebrity with a historic victory over one of the world’s most powerful and controversial corporations – Monsanto Co.

Johnson sued Monsanto alleging that he developed a deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being drenched with the company’s herbicides, which he sprayed as part of his job as school groundskeeper. In Aug. 2018, a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Monsanto had failed to warn of the carcinogenic dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide and related products, which Johnson sprayed regularly. Thousands of other cancer victims are also suing Monsanto and awaiting their own day in court, but Johnson was the first to take the company to trial. The jury awarded Johnson a jaw-dropping $289 million, which a judge slashed to $78 million on Oct. 22. Evidence revealed in the trial included internal Monsanto records that included discussions of “ghostwriting” scientific papers that asserted the safety of its products and plans to discredit an international agency that declared the main ingredient in Roundup, a chemical called glyphosate, to be a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, maintains that its products do not cause cancer. On Nov. 20, the company further appealed, seeking to overturn even Johnson’s reduced award and the trial court judge’s refusal to grant Monsanto’s request for a new trial. But the initial verdict already put Johnson’s life on a very different trajectory, bringing him international attention and heartbreak. He spoke with TIME about the aftermath of his case.

Before I got sick life was pretty good. I had a good job. We were renting this nice house; we found it through some friends. It was almost in foreclosure so we were able to rent it for a good price. Three bedrooms and a nice big backyard. I didn’t have a car so my wife Araceli would drop me off at work or I would ride my bike to the bus stop and take the bus to work. My job title at the school district was integrated pest manager, IPM. I did everything – caught skunks, mice, and raccoons, patched holes in walls, worked on irrigation issues. And I sprayed the pesticides, the “juice.” I had to be at work by sun up to make sure we had time to spray before the kids got to school. One of the guys I worked with didn’t want to wear protective gear but I told him he had to. You got to be careful with this stuff. On a typical day I would fill up my little container with raw pesticide liquid and then put that in the back of my truck and then mix a load before I would leave the yard. I’d mix it all in a tank and take that on the back of my truck and then head out to start spraying. I did not like using the chemicals but I loved that job. I would have been making $80,000 a year now if I was still there.

That day of the accident, the day the sprayer broke and I got drenched in the juice, I didn’t think that much about it. I washed up in the sink as best I could and changed my clothes. Later I went home and took a good long shower but I didn’t think, “Oh my god, I’m going to die from this stuff.” Then I got a little rash. Then it got worse and worse and worse. At one point I had lesions on my face, on my lips, all over my arms and legs.

When I first saw a doctor he was totally confused and didn’t know what was happening on my skin. He sent me to see a dermatologist who did a biopsy of a lesion on my knee. They sent me to UCSF (University of California San Francisco) and then to Stanford. A bunch of doctors came and checked me out. Then one day I got a call. They told me it was urgent, I had to come in to discuss my test results. When the doctor said I had cancer, my wife was sitting there with me. She started crying. I didn’t take it in right away. I don’t think I have still taken it in.

People want to say it’s Johnson v. Monsanto. They want me to talk about the company. I don’t want to do that. I don’t even want to say the company name. I just say ‘the big company.’ I don’t want to be slanderous. I’ve seen reports that I want an apology but that’s not true. I’m not a person who would think an apology would make me feel better – it certainly would not heal my cancer. This isn’t about me and that big company. It is important for people to know this stuff, to know about what they’re being exposed to. If people have the information they can make choices, they can be informed and protect themselves. I’m just a regular guy from a small town called Vallejo in the California Bay Area who happened to seek the truth about my failing health and found answers.

It’s not to say that I didn’t get mad. Plenty of things upset me as the evidence came out in court. I had called the big company early on when I was sick trying to get some answers and at the time the woman I talked to on the phone was real nice. But you see in the emails that came out that there was really no concern for me. They never called me back, that made me mad. I think not getting a call back is what made me pursue legal action. And then when I was in court and heard about the ghostwriting of the science and you see in the emails that everybody is just on a script; they program everybody to stick to the script about safety even if the science says different. [Editor’s Note: Internal Monsanto emails presented at trial showed that Johnson called the company in November 2014 reporting his concerns that his cancer was triggered by being “soaked to the skin” in a Monsanto herbicide during a work accident. “He’s looking for answers,” a Monsanto product support specialist wrote to Monsanto Dan Goldstein, the company’s medical sciences and outreach executive. Goldstein replied that the “story is not making any sense to me at all,” and said he would call Johnson back. But Johnson said he never received a call and Goldstein testified he could not remember whether or not he called Johnson.]

It seemed like the whole world was watching when the judge read that verdict, line by line, and then they announced a quarter billion dollar settlement, $289 million dollars. I think I immediately was paranoid; I literally asked the young bailiff if he could roll out of court with me because I knew the attention this would get and I’ve never really been a fan of attention or fanfare. And now it seems like that’s taken over my life. I get requests for media interviews from all over the world, and people ask me to come to their events and speak, and I’ve had people telling me they want to buy my “life rights” to try to get movie deals. I’ve had strangers try to suddenly become my best friend on Facebook, and then there was this kind of voo-doo priestess who somehow got my number, calling and calling and texting nonstop, promising she could heal me. When I shunned her, she said I would remember her on my death bed, wishing I had let her help me. It’s crazy. My kids are handling it well but they don’t dig the attention — we’re a small family and we’ve just been trying to deal with becoming nationally known.

Sometimes it really gets overwhelming with so many calls and requests for interviews or speaking events. At the same time, though, I see myself now as a major contributor for a conversation that’s been brewing for years, but since the verdict the conversation is a lot louder. I try to give each request my attention but just can’t due to my health and trying to help take care of my kids. But I am trying to make this a priority. I want to see all these schools stop using glyphosate, first California, then the rest of the country. That is my small mission. And as overwhelming as it is, I do feel a lot of support and positive energy from many people who’ve reached out to me. I have felt the love and support of people all across the world and that gives me a whole new sense of drive and responsibility. Some people send small gifts, trinkets. They write to me about their own cancers. One woman wrote about her husband and how he had died. I would say I’ve received thousands of letters. It helps.

A lot of people ask me what I want to do with my life now. I don’t think I’m superman. I go through those little moments when my head is down and my elbows are on my knees and asking myself what am I going to do? But if I can get healthy, not give in to what my doctors say is a terminal situation, if I can get treatments and get closer to a cure then I see myself doing good things. I would love to start a foundation. And I want to do more with my music and art. I paint with oil or acrylic and I do some charcoal drawings. I also like to write; I’ve self-published two books – “My Opinion” and “The Perfect Front.”

Some people think I’m a rich man, they speak to me as if I’ve been paid already, which is far from reality. The truth is the appeals could go on well past my life expectancy. We can’t really celebrate or make plans or go on vacation because we don’t have that money. I get a social security check now every month. It doesn’t even cover the cost of the rent. People are trying to help me out, but I’m basically broke. It’s exciting sometimes to think that we may get millions of dollars, but right now we know we’re not. We’re living the ghost money life.

I’m not even sure I would know how to be a rich man. I would like to buy a house, something close to my kids’ schools, something to give them security. But there are only so many things you can buy. I don’t think there is very much you can or should do with millions of dollars other than try to help people. As for the judge cutting the $289 million down to $78 million, I never thought of that $289 million as anything that would go in my pockets. I knew there would be legal limits striking it and so I never really thought of it as mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the jury award in my lifetime. Hopefully my boys will though.

Mostly what I want is for my sons, all three of them, to feel like they have a solid security blanket and to know that they are taken care of. I want to show them the good path and give them the quality of life that allows them to get educated, to understand life and culture and people. I hope that one day they will look back and say, “My dad made history and stood up for himself and for us.”

My chemo has stopped because I am supposed to have more surgery for this thing they biopsied on my arm. Apparently, it’s some new melanoma. And I’ve got this pain that I call “hot spots” on my foot and my arm, burning my wrist. Sometimes I call them “burners.” But it is what it is. I used to be all shiny and a handsome guy – now I’m all messed up. I feel like if you’re sick, you shouldn’t hide it though. Share it with the world and maybe you can help someone.

So much is going on, but the most important thing to me is my boys. I’m so proud of my boys. I hate to think about dying. Even when I feel like I’m dying, I just make myself move past it. I feel like you can’t give in to it, the diagnosis, the disease, because then you really are dead. I don’t mess around with the death cloud, the dark thoughts, the fears. I’m planning for a good life.

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.