Cancer Victim Headed Back to the Stand

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(Transcript of today’s proceedings)

Plaintiff Edwin Hardeman took the stand today to offer more testimony in his lawsuit against Monsanto over claims his use of the company’s Roundup herbicide caused him to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Hardeman already testified in the first phase of the trial, which drew a unanimous jury verdict finding that Roundup was to blame for his cancer. His testimony today addressed the question of Monsanto’s liability and if the company should pay damages for the loss of his health.

Hardman’s attorneys are trying to convince jurors that Monsanto knew of the dangers of its products but actively worked to suppress that information through a variety of tactics, including pressuring regulators, ghostwriting scientific literature, and misleading consumers such as Hardeman with heavy marketing about the safety of glyphosate-based herbicides.

In the first phase of the trial, Judge Vince Chhabria sharply limited testimony about Hardeman’s medical treatments and the suffering he endured. In this phase, such testimony is allowed.

Jurors also heard from Mary Hardeman, Edwin’s wife, on Friday. In the first phase, which dealt only with evidence pertaining to whether or not Roundup caused Mr. Hardeman’s cancer,  the judge rebuked Hardeman’s attorney Aimee Wagstaff for even trying to introduce Mary Hardeman to jurors and for describing the couple’s courtship and long marriage.

Also taking the stand was plaintiff’s expert witness Chadi Nabhan,  chief medical officer for Cardinal Health in Chicago.

The first witness Friday was Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer, whose testimony was  presented via video. Hardeman’s attorneys started her testimony on Wednesday. There was no court held Thursday.

Next week, Hardeman’s attorneys plan to play video testimony of former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant.

Something to Chew On

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(Transcript from today’s proceedings)

Here is an interesting tidbit to chew on over the weekend. In light of Judge Vince Chhabria’s unusual handling of the first Roundup cancer lawsuit to come to trial in federal court, (see previous entries for bifurcation and other background) and the vitriol with which he has been addressing plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s legal counsel, many observers have asked – what gives? The bifurcation, his decision to sanction plaintiff’s lead counsel, his threat to dismiss the case entirely, and his repeated comments about how “shaky” the plaintiffs’ evidence is, obviously appear to favor Monsanto’s defense, at least in the early stages of the trial.Could there be some connection between Chhabria and Monsanto?

Chhabria has a pretty stellar background. Born and raised in California, he obtained his law degree in 1998 from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, graduating with honors. He served as law clerk for two federal judges and for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and worked as an associate for two law firms before joining the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office where he worked from 2005 to 2013. He was nominated by President Obama for the seat he holds now in the summer of 2013.

But interestingly, one of those law firms where Chhabria worked has raised eyebrows. Covington & Burling, LLP, is a well-known defender of a variety of corporate interests, including Monsanto Co. Covington was reportedly instrumental in helping Monsanto defend itself against dairy industry concerns over the company’s synthetic bovine growth hormone supplement, known as rBGH (for recombinant bovine growth hormone) or the brand name Posilac.

Chhabria worked at the firm between 2002-2004, a time period when Monsanto’s legal battle over Posilac was in high gear. The firm was reportedly involved in the issue in part by “sending letters to virtually all U.S. dairy processors, warning that they faced potential legal consequences if they labeled their consumer products as “rBGH-Free.”

Covington is perhaps best known for its work for the tobacco industry. A judge in Minnesota in 1997 ruled that the firm was willfully disregarding court orders to turn over certain documents pertaining to claims that the tobacco industry engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to mislead the public about the health impacts of smoking and hide damaging scientific research from public view.

Shortly before Obama selected Chhabria for his federal judgeship, an array of former Covington & Burling attorneys took spots in the administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder and deputy chief of staff Daniel Suleiman. It was reported that employees of the law firm contributed more than $340,000 to Obama’s campaign.

Chhabria’s tenure at Covington was short, to be sure. There is no apparent evidence Chhabria ever represented Monsanto’s interests directly. But he is also no stranger to the world of corporate power and influence. How those dots connect in this case is so far unclear.

Trial Takes a Day Off

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Thursdays are ‘dark’ days for the Roundup cancer trial, meaning lawyers, jurors and witnesses have a day to catch their breath and regroup. And after the fast and furious first three days of the trial, they probably can use the break.

After losing another juror on Wednesday morning, the trial proceeded with the testimony of plaintiff’s expert witness and former U.S. government scientist Christopher Portier. The testimony was provided via a video recorded in Australia last week.

During an afternoon break in Portier’s testimony, Judge Chhabria took a few moments to explain himself for certain comments he made to plaintiff’s lead counsel Aimee Wagstaff on Tuesday before sanctioning her for what he said was misconduct in her opening statement to the jury. (see prior blog entries for details.)

The following is a brief excerpt:

THE COURT: Before we bring in the jury, I want to
make a quick statement to Ms. Wagstaff.
I was reflecting on the OSC hearing last night, and I
wanted to clarify one thing. I gave a list of reasons why I
thought your conduct was intentional, and one of those reasons
was that you seemed to have prepared yourself in advance for —
that you would get a hard time for violating the pretrial
rulings. In explaining that, I used the word “steely,” and I
want to make clear what I meant by that.
I was using steely as an adjective for steeling yourself,
which is to make yourself ready for something difficult and
unpleasant. My point was that I perceived no surprise on your
part; and since lawyers typically seem surprised when they are
accused of violating pretrial rulings, that was relevant to me
on the issue of intent. But “steely” has another meaning as
well, which is far more negative. And I want to assure you
that that’s not the meaning that I was using nor was I
suggesting anything about your general character traits.
So I know you continue to disagree with my ruling and my
findings about intent, but I wanted to make that point very
clear.
MS. WAGSTAFF: Thank you, Your Honor.

Judicial Threats and Judge Jokes

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(UPDATE – Another juror has just been dismissed. One of the seven women jurors has been dismissed in morning proceedings. That leaves one man and six women. A total of six jurors are required and all must be unanimous in their verdict.)

As day three opens in the first federal trial over claims that Monsanto’s Roundup products can cause cancer, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has made it clear that he has no fondness for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s legal team.

Chhabria on Tuesday issued a ruling sanctioning Hardeman’s lead counsel Aimee Wagstaff for what the judge deemed as “several acts of misconduct,” fining her $500 and ordering her to provide a list of all others on her team who participated in drafting her opening statement so that those lawyers may also be sanctioned.

At issue – various remarks made by Wagstaff that Judge Chhabria thought exceeded the tight restrictions he has placed on what evidence the jury can hear. Chhabria wants jurors to hear only about scientific evidence without context about Monsanto’s conduct seeking to influence the scientific record and knowledge of certain scientific findings. Additionally, even though there were no restrictions in place pertaining to the introduction of plaintiff Hardeman to the jury, the judge took issue with Wagstaff’s manner of introduction and description of how he came to learn he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In Monday’s proceedings the judge made his anger at Wagstaff clear, interrupting her multiple times as she addressed the jury and ordering her to alter her presentation. He also instructed the jury more than once not to consider what Wagstaff said as evidence.

In court on Tuesday he chastised Wagstaff and said that he knew her actions were intentionally aimed at flouting his directives because she did not wither under his “coming down hard on her” in court Monday during her opening statement.

Below is a portion of those proceedings from Tuesday. (References to Moore mean Jennifer Moore, who is co-counsel on the Hardeman case.)

THE COURT: All arrows point to this being bad faith, including, by the way, Ms. Wagstaff’s reactions to the objections. She was clearly ready for it. She clearly braced herself for the fact that I was going to come down hard on her. And she was — to her credit perhaps, she was very steely in her response to my coming down hard on her because she knew it was coming and she braced herself for that.

MS. MOORE: Well, I — Your Honor, I don’t think that is not fair; and that is based on assumptions on the Court’s part.

THE COURT: That is based on my observations of body language and facial expressions.

MS. WAGSTAFF: Well, actually, Your Honor, I would just like to talk about that for just one moment. The fact that I can handle you coming down in front of a jury should not be used against me. I have been coming in front of you now for, what, three years. So I’m used to this communication back and forth. And the fact that I was prepared for anything that you had to say to me — and that you interrupted my opening statement a few times in a row — should not be used against me. The fact that I have composure when you are attacking me, it should not be used against me.

THE COURT: I was not attacking you. I was enforcing the rules, the pretrial rules.

MS. WAGSTAFF: You just said the fact that I was able to compose myself is evidence of intent, and that is just not fair.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case believe that the judge’s directive to separate the trial into two phases and sharply limit the evidence they can present to the jury is extremely favorable to Monsanto and prejudicial to their ability to meet the burden of proof in the case. They also say that the judge’s guidance on what evidence can come in and what cannot is confusing. And they point out that Monsanto’s attorney also in opening statements introduced evidence that was banned by the judge, though he was not sanctioned.

Below is a bit more from Tuesday’s proceedings:

THE COURT: And that is — that is relevant to intent. That is relevant to bad faith. The fact that the Plaintiffs have made so clear that they are so desperate to get this information into Phase One is evidence that it was not just a mistake that they happen to put this information in their opening statements.

MS. MOORE: Your Honor, I did not say we were desperate. What I was trying to explain is that the way the trial is set up is unusual. And I think, Your Honor, that you recognize that after the bifurcation order came out; that this is a unique situation where you limit a trial when we are talking about product case like this to only science in the first phase, and it has created confusion on both sides of the aisle.

That’s for sure.

Joke of the day – told to me by a lawyer who wishes to remain unnamed:

Q: “Who is Monsanto’s best lawyer?”

A: “Judge Chhabria.”