Monsanto scientist tells jurors company’s side of Roundup cancer controversy

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A senior scientist at the former Monsanto Co. on Tuesday told jurors in a California trial that regulators around the world support the company’s position that its glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, are safe for users.

Donna Farmer, who worked as a toxicologist at Monsanto for more than two decades and now works at Monsanto owner Bayer AG, spent long hours testifying in the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto. Farmer has been a key witness in the Stephens case and was quizzed intently for days by lawyers for Stephens before Monsanto’s lawyers took up the questioning.

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

The Stephens case is the fourth Roundup cancer lawsuit to go to trial and the first since 2019. Stephens suffers from non-Hodgkin lymphoma she blames on her use of Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years.

A chance to explain

Monsanto lawyer Monsanto lawyer Manuel Cachan questioned Farmer about several issues that were raised earlier by plaintiffs’ attorneys, telling Farmer it was her chance to explain details about several matters that Stephens’ lawyers had presented as evidence of Monsanto wrong-doing.

One such issue involved comments Farmer wrote in a 2003 email to colleagues about the importance of distinguishing between the chemical glyphosate and the Roundup formulation, which is made with glyphosate as the active ingredient.

In the email, Farmer wrote “The terms glyphosate and Roundup cannot be used interchangeably nor can you use “Roundup” for all glyphosate-based herbicides any more. For example you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen… we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have pointed to that language as part of a broad argument disputing Monsanto’s contention that thorough testing of Roundup has demonstrated it does not cause cancer.

In testimony Tuesday, Farmer said that she merely was trying to be “very precise” when explaining to colleagues the distinctions between products. She was not indicating in the email that there was any question about whether or not Roundup might cause cancer, Farmer testified.

She pointed out that in that internal email she also wrote “there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”

And though it was true at that time that Monsanto had not conducted extensive carcinogenicity testing on Roundup formulations, that changed over time, Farmer testified.

“I think we’ve got a lot more studies on Roundup than we had, and so I think we have a lot more information about the Roundup formulations that still supports the conclusions and safety about the formulation,” Farmer told the jury.

A regulatory pass

At another point in the questioning by Monsanto’s lawyer, Farmer told jurors that regulators had never required the company to conduct animal carcinogenicity testing on Roundup. She said not only had the U.S. EPA not demanded such testing, but regulators in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan had similarly not required any such animal testing on Roundup products.

She also told jurors that while it was true that Roundup products contain formaldehyde, it was a “very, very small amount” and posed no danger to human health. Regulators agreed there was no reason for concern, Farmer testified.

“We produce formaldehyde every day in our bodies,” said Farmer. “Small amounts of formaldehyde like in the formulations at those low levels do not present a health hazard to humans.”

Farmer’s testimony sought to rebut other points of evidence raised by Stephens’ lawyers, seeking to cast Monsanto as a responsible, science-based organization that has been the innocent target of activist-driven misinformation. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have twisted internal conversations seen in emails and other communications to confuse and mislead jurors, according to arguments by Monsanto attorneys.

Monsanto lost each of the three previous trials, after lawyers for the plaintiffs presented jurors with multiple scientific studies finding potential health risks with glyphosate and Roundup  The plaintiffs lawyers also used internal Monsanto documents as evidence, arguing they showed intentional efforts by the company to manipulate regulators and control scientific research.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has settled other cases that had been scheduled to go to trial. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle about 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. Bayer also recently said it would set aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

To try to quell future litigation, Bayer said it would stop selling Roundup, and other herbicides made with the active ingredient glyphosate, to U.S. consumers by 2023. But the company continues to sell the products for use by farmers and commercial applicators.

Key Court Hearing Wednesday in Bayer Cancer Liability Litigation

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(UPDATED May 18 with pretrial order)

As Bayer AG works to put an end to costly litigation over alleged connections between Roundup herbicide and cancer, the company faces a critical hearing on Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco.

At issue in the hearing is a proposed $2 billion class action settlement structured by Bayer in coordination with a small team of plaintiffs’ lawyers as a means to address potential future lawsuits.

Proponents of the proposed class action plan say it “will save lives,” and provide “speedy compensation” to people who get NHL.

But the plan has generated widespread opposition from law firms around the country who say the proposal actually does little for cancer patients while benefiting Bayer and the lawyers who structured the proposal and who will be paid millions of dollars in fees if the plan goes through.

The class action settlement would apply to people exposed to Roundup products as of Feb. 3, 2021 who have not yet sued Monsanto or retained a lawyer to do so. The settlement plan would set up a framework for addressing new claims brought by those exposed individuals who develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) they attribute to their Roundup exposure.

The class action plan, which is separate from an $11 billion settlement of Roundup litigation announced by Bayer last June to address already filed lawsuits, needs approval from U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria.  A prior class action settlement plan submitted last year was scorned by Chhabria and then withdrawn. The judge has been overseeing the federal multidistrict Roundup litigation involving thousands of plaintiffs from around the United States.

On Tuesday, Judge Chhabria issued a pretrial order stating that Wednesday’s hearing “will focus on big-picture concerns” with the proposed settlement.

Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and has been struggling ever since to defend the line of glyphosate-based herbicide products such as Roundup that Bayer inherited in the acquisition. Cancer victims have won three trials held to date and tens of thousands of other plaintiffs have filed lawsuits alleging exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma while Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

A “Big Prize”

Likening the class action settlement proposal to a “carnival barker hawking a ‘big prize,’” veteran consumer attorney Gerson Smoger told the court in a recent filing: “This is not merely an unfair deal.  It is a deal designed to allow Monsanto to poison future generations. Monsanto knows it can only do this if it can put shackles on our system of justice. After four attempts, it should be clear that this proposed settlement cannot be remedied. This Court should deny preliminary approval and end this exercise in allowing a corporation to buy its own justice system.”

Smoger is one of more than 160 lawyers from more than 90 law firms who have notified the court they object to the proposed class action settlement, which has been rewritten multiple times already to try to appease objections.

At the heart of the objections is the view that if approved, the class action plan could limit the due process rights of people to go to trial and seek punitive damages awards in the future if they are diagnosed with NHL after Roundup exposure, while allowing Bayer to keep selling Roundup products with no express warning of a cancer risk on the label.

The limiting of plaintiffs’ ability to seek punitive damages while not limiting Bayer’s ability to keep selling Roundup distinguishes this settlement from any similar class action, according to an opposition brief filed by the nonprofit legal group Public Justice. The plan is a “blueprint for how manufacturers can cut off victims’ rights to seek punitive damages from injuries caused by hazardous pesticides, the group said.

“Importantly, there has never been a release of punitive damages in a class action settlement involving a hazardous product that was still on the market. If this Court approves this Settlement, it would be the first time that has ever happened in the history of American jurisprudence,” the Public Justice brief states.

The critics also object to the proposed formation of a science panel designed to provide evidence about whether or not the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides actually are carcinogenic, a four-year stay of future litigation, and many other components of the plan.

Proponents Cite Plan Benefits

The legal team pushing the class action settlement forward, counters that the plan actually is a good thing for people who may develop NHL in the future.

“This settlement will save lives. It will deliver notice, outreach, and information, including on the product label itself, to Roundup users—among them those overlooked by the tort system to date—that they may be at risk and should take action,” the proponents of the plan said in a court filing.

According to the class action settlement proponents, the plan will

  • Alert potential class members to be evaluated for NHL, and provide them diagnostic assistance to do so through a medical-monitoring program
  • Provide an option for “significant and speedy compensation” if a class member gets NHL
  • Provide access to free legal services
  • Fund research into treatment and diagnosis of NHL.
  • Allow class members the right to sue Monsanto for compensatory damages if the class member prefers

Judge Chhabria said in an order issued May 10 that along with hearing from the proponents of the plan, he will allow oral arguments from all those who have filed objections to the plan in Wednesday’s hearing.

In his pretrial order issued May 18, Chhabria said several questions would need to be addressed. Among the questions posed by the judge are these:

  • Why is it in the interest of the class to agree in advance to the admission in future trials of
    the conclusions of a court-appointed independent science panel, given how well the trials
    have been going for plaintiffs without such a panel?
  • If the Court understands the settlement correctly, it binds anyone exposed to Roundup
    before February 3, 2021 (assuming they do not opt out), but contemplates that the
    compensation fund and medical monitoring program can be terminated a few years after
    the settlement is approved. Why would it be in the interest of people exposed to Roundup
    before February 2021 to bind themselves to a fund and program that expires so quickly?
  • Is it appropriate to certify a class for settlement purposes when it is obvious that the class could never be certified for litigation purposes?