Cancer patient lawyer spars with Monsanto scientist in California Roundup trial

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A lawyer for a woman claiming her use of Roundup herbicide caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma sparred with a longtime Monsanto scientist in court on Wednesday, forcing the scientist to address numerous internal corporate documents about research showing Monsanto weed killers could be genotoxic and lead to cancer.

The testimony by former Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer marked her second day on the stand and  came several weeks into the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto, the fourth Roundup trial in the United States, and the first since 2019. Juries in three prior trials all found in favor of plaintiffs who, like Stephens, alleged they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma due to their use of Roundup or other Monsanto herbicides made with the chemical glyphosate. Thousands of people have filed similar claims.

Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has earmarked more than $14 billion to try to settle all of the U.S. Roundup litigation, but many plaintiffs have refused to settle, and cases continue to go to trial.

A “genotox hole”

In hours of contentious back-and-forth, interrupted repeatedly by objections from a Monsanto attorney, Stephens’ lawyer William Shapiro quizzed Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer about emails and documents dating back to the late 1990s that focused on research – and the company’s handling of that research – into whether or not the company’s herbicide products could cause cancer.

In one line of questioning, Shapiro asked Farmer about emails in which she and other company scientists discussed the company’s response to outside research that concluded the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides were genotoxic, meaning they damaged human DNA. Genotoxicity is an indicator that a chemical or other substance may cause cancer.

Shapiro focused during one series of questions on work done by a scientist named James Parry, who Monsanto hired as a consultant in the 1990s to weigh in on the genotoxicity concerns about Roundup being raised at the time by outside scientists. Parry’s report agreed there appeared to be “potential genotoxic activity” with glyphosate, and recommended that Monsanto do additional studies on its products.

In an internal Monsanto email dating from September 1999 written to Farmer and other company scientists, a Monsanto scientist named William Heydens said this about Parry’s report: “let’s step back and look at what we are really trying to achieve here. We want to find/develop someone who is comfortable with the genetox profile of glyphosate/Roundup and can be influential with regulators and Scientific Outreach operations when genetox issues arise. My read is that Parry is not currently such a person, and it would take quite some time and $$$/studies to get him there. We simply aren’t going to do the studies Parry suggests.”

In a separate email revealed through the litigation, Farmer wrote that Parry’s report put the company into a “genotox hole” and she mentioned a suggestion by a colleague that the company should “drop” Parry.

Farmer testified that her mention of a “genotox hole” referred to problems with “communication” not about any cancer risk. She also said that she and other Monsanto scientists did not have concerns with the safety of glyphosate or Roundup, but did have concerns about how to respond to paper and research by outside scientists raising such concerns.

Shapiro pressed Farmer on her reaction to Parry’s finding: “You thought it would be okay on behalf of Monsanto to receive information as you did from Dr. Parry that this Roundup product was genotoxic or could be, you thought it would be okay to go ahead and continue to sell the product, correct?”

Farmer replied: “We didn’t agree with Professor Parry’s conclusions at the time that it may be, could be, capable of being genotoxic. We had other evidence….  We had regulators who had agreed with our studies and conclusions that it was not genotoxic.”

Her answer was interrupted as Shapiro objected, saying he was asking a yes or no question and Farmer’s attempt to respond beyond that should be stricken. The judge agreed and struck part of the response.

Continuing his questioning, Shapiro asked: “Well that didn’t work out to have Dr. Parry be the spokesperson for Monsanto, did it Dr. Farmer?

“I would disagree with you because there is still a lot more to this Professor Parry, working with him, and I’d be happy to…” Farmer replied before being cut off by another Shapiro objection and the judge’s striking of everything following the first five words.

A similar pattern played out throughout Farmer’s testimony as Stephens’ lawyer objected to Farmer’s attempts to provide extended answers to multiple questions posed, and Monsanto’s lawyer Manuel Cachan objecting repeatedly to Shapiro’s questions as “argumentative.”

Ghostwriting and “FTO”

Shapiro asked Farmer to address multiple issues expressed in the internal corporate emails, including one series in which Monsanto scientists discussed ghostwriting scientific papers, including a very prominent paper published in the year 2000 that asserted there were no human health concerns with glyphosate or Roundup.

Shapiro additionally asked Farmer to address a strategy Monsanto referred to in emails as “Freedom to Operate” or “FTO”. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have presented FTO as Monsanto’s strategy of doing whatever it took to lessen or eliminate restrictions on its products.

And he asked her about Monsanto emails expressing concerns about research into dermal absorption rates – how fast its herbicide might absorb into human skin.

Farmer said multiple times that information was not being presented in the correct context, and she would be happy to provide detailed explanations for all of the issues raised by Shapiro, but was told by the judge she would need to wait until questioning by Monsanto’s lawyers to do so.

Zoom trial

The Stephens trial is taking place under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California. The trial is being held via Zoom due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, and numerous technical difficulties have plagued the proceedings. Testimony has been halted multiple times because jurors have lost connections or had other problems that inhibited their ability to hear and view the trial testimony.

Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The three prior trials were all lengthy, in-person proceedings loaded with weeks of highly technical testimony about scientific data, regulatory matters and documents detailing internal Monsanto communications.

Monsanto lawyer cross-examines cancer patient over her claims Roundup caused her disease

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A California woman suing Monsanto over allegations that her use of Roundup weed killer caused her to develop cancer testified Monday that she had a hard time remembering many details about the extent of her use of the pesticide, struggling to answer several questions posed by a Monsanto attorney.

In cross examination, Monsanto attorney Bart Williams pressed plaintiff Donetta Stephens on how much and when she had used the company’s popular herbicide before she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2017. Peppering Stephens with questions about changes in information she provided in depositions and interrogatories, the company’s lawyer sought to cast doubt on the span and volume of her actual use and exposure.

In testimony last week, Stephens’ son David Stephens recalled his mother’s frequent use of Roundup and her tendency to wear sleeveless shirts and shorts when outside spraying the weed killer. He described recalling her use when he was a child and seeing that use continuing when he was an adult.

But in Monday’s testimony, Williams sought to undermine Donnetta Stephens credibility, implying that her son and husband were the architects of many of her answers about her use of Roundup provided in pre-trial documents.

He said that Stephens and her husband had “changed your story about the length of time you had used Roundup,” saying initially her use dated back to 2003 but then saying the use began in 1985.

Stephens acknowledged that her memories of her use were aided by information from her family.

“You and I agree that one should not swear to something, accuracy, if you don’t know whether it is true or not.  That is my question,” Monsanto’s lawyer addressed Stephens.

“At that time, I believed it to be true, yes sir,” she replied.

“You believed it to be true solely because that’s what your husband or your son said, correct?” Williams  asked.

“Yes,” Stephens answered.

The line of questioning was anticipated in a June filing by Stephens’ lawyers, explaining to the judge that Stephens is in frail health after six cycles of chemotherapy and has suffered significant memory loss, making her “unable to recall certain Roundup exposures.”

She had told lawyers initially that her exposure extended over 14 years but amended that to say it was  closer to 30 years after being reminded of her use of Roundup products at a property where she had previously lived, according to her lawyers.

In their June filing, Stephens lawyers said Monsanto’s attorneys were accusing them and Stephens of “engaging in gamesmanship,” and allegation they denied.

Stephens testified that she does remember that sometimes when she was spraying Roundup the wind would blow spray onto her bare skin. She said she would not immediately wash it off, showering only after she completed her yardwork.

“It was all over me,” Stephens said.

At one point Monsanto’s attorney asked Stephens about her relationship with her children. When Stephens insisted she was close to her children, Monsanto’s attorney played a video deposition of a previous statement she had made saying the opposite.

Longtime Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer is scheduled to testify Tuesday.

Monsanto is owned by Germany’s Bayer AG. Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018.

Preference case

Stephens’ trial is a “preference” case, meaning her case was expedited after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens was “in a perpetual state of pain” and losing cognition and memory.

The case is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa. It is the fourth Roundup cancer trial to take place in the United States and the first since 2019. Juries in all three prior trials found in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks, and failing to warn users.

Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The three prior trials were all lengthy, in-person proceedings loaded with weeks of highly technical testimony about scientific data, regulatory matters and documents detailing internal Monsanto communications.

Stephens trial is being held via Zoom due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, and numerous technical difficulties have plagued the proceedings. On Monday, the trial was stopped several times because jurors lost connections or had other problems that inhibited their ability to hear and view the trial testimony.

Son testifies about his mother’s cancer alleged due to Roundup exposure

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A woman suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma was a devoted user of Roundup herbicide for decades before she became ill, her son testified Tuesday in a California trial that marks the fourth such trial pitting a cancer victim against Roundup maker Monsanto.

Under questioning by a lawyer representing plaintiff Donetta Stephens, her son David Stephens recalled his mother’s frequent use of Roundup in the yard and her tendency to wear sleeveless shirts and shorts when outside spraying the weed killer. He described recalling her use when he was a child and that use continuing when he was an adult and had his own children.

Stephens also testified about a family gathering in which his mother broke the news of her cancer to the family, the lengthy series of medical treatments that followed, his mother’s memory loss and other treatment-related problems, and a period in which his mother was hospitalized multiple times and nearly died.

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

Bayer AG bought Monsanto in June 2018 just as the first trial was getting underway.

Three previous trials held to date were all found in favor of the plaintiffs. Jurors in those trials agreed with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks and failing to warn users.

The Stephens case is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa. Though the trial started in person, Judge Ochoa ordered the proceedings shifted to a Zoom trial due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19 virus.

In testimony Tuesday, David Stephens broke down, emotionally describing a time when it appeared his mother was near death, and speaking of a photo he took of her that he thought at the time would be the last.

“I took that picture because when you think that your mother is going to die and that could be the last picture…,” Stephens said haltingly. “I wanted to take that picture so I could remember…”

Donnetta Stephens is now in remission from cancer but has been left debilitated, her son testified.

Former Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer will be called to testify next week, according to Stephens’ lawyer Fletch Trammell.

Technical trouble

The trial has been plagued by technical issues since the transition to a virtual setting through Zoom. There have been multiple times proceedings have been halted because a lawyer or juror loses an audio or video connection or experiences other difficulties. The virtual format has also proven problematic at times for the presentation of certain exhibits.

A courtroom attendant has been assigned to monitor jurors to determine if they are paying attention, and to alert the judge to lost connections or other problems.

In Tuesday’s testimony, as Monsanto lawyer Manuel Cachan was attempting to cross examine Stephens, questioning the reliability of his memory regarding his mother’s use of Roundup, the technical trouble kicked in again.

“I’m sorry for the interruption, juror number 13 is having issues, just starting to quote unquote glitch out,” the courtroom attendant interjected.

Minutes later: “Pardon me… juror number 11 has just disconnected,” the courtroom attendant interrupted again.

Some legal observers have speculated that the losing party in the trial will have an easy avenue for appeal given the persistent interruptions and difficulties.

Trial overlap

A fifth Roundup trial was starting jury selection this week in a case involving a boy with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The child, Ezra Clark, is the subject of a trial beginning this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Clark was “directly exposed” to Roundup many times as he accompanied his mother while she sprayed Roundup to kill weeds around the property where the family lived, according to court documents. Ezra sometimes played in freshly sprayed areas, according to the court filings.

Ezra was diagnosed in 2016, at the age of 4, with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a form of NHL that has a high tendency to spread to the central nervous system, and can also involve the liver, spleen and bone marrow, according to the court filings.

Ezra’s mother, Destiny Clark, is the plaintiff in the case, filing on behalf of Ezra.

Opening statements in the Clark trial are scheduled to begin Wednesday morning.

Bayer denies any cancer connection

Bayer has earmarked more than $14 billion to try to settle the litigation and has announced it will stop selling glyphosate-based herbicides to consumers by 2023. But the company still insists that the herbicides it inherited from Monsanto do not cause cancer.

Last month Bayer filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the high court’s review of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Hardeman v. Monsanto. 

The move is widely seen as Bayer’s best hope for putting an end to claims that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the company failed to warn users of the risks.

During the month-long trial in 2019, lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman presented jurors with a range of scientific research showing cancer connections to Monsanto’s herbicides as well as evidence of many Monsanto strategies aimed at suppressing the scientific information about the risks of its products. Internal Monsanto documents showed the company’s scientists had engaged in secretly ghost-writing scientific papers that the company then used to help convince regulators of product safety.

Bayer Roundup trial goes virtual, and it does not go well

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In fits and starts, and with a good dose of frustration over technical difficulties, a California trial pitting an elderly cancer victim against Monsanto owner Bayer AG resumed on Monday in a virtual format after in-person proceedings were suspended last week, reportedly due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

Due to an array of technical problems, lawyers for plaintiff Donnetta Stephens were only able to present abbreviated testimony on Monday from expert witness Charles Benbrook, a former research professor who served at one time as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture.

Benbrook is considered a key witness, and is being called to testify about topics that include the history of scientific submissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by Monsanto and alleged regulatory shortcomings.

The case, which is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa,  is the fourth Roundup cancer trial to take place in the United States and the first since 2019. Juries in all three prior trials found in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks, and failing to warn users.

Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The three prior trials were all lengthy, in-person proceedings loaded with weeks of highly technical testimony about scientific data, regulatory matters and documents detailing internal Monsanto communications.

Monday’s proceedings indicated that both sides may face significant challenges in trying to convey and combat the evidence and testimony in a virtual format.

Among the issues on Monday, a court reporter couldn’t fully hear the exchanges between lawyer and witness; jurors had difficulty turning on their computer cameras, a requirement issued by the judge; and the judge himself had to relocate at one point in an effort to improve audio transmission.

A courtroom attendant reassured the judge that he was checking in on the jurors every ten minutes and “it appeared that they were all paying attention.”

At one point when calling a break, Judge Ochoa pleaded: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury please, whatever you do, don’t turn off your computers, don’t touch them, just leave them alone and hopefully everybody’s computer will play nice.”

The judge recessed for the day in mid-afternoon, thanking the jurors for their patience.

“We did have some major technical difficulties,” Judge Ochoa said. He noted, however, that they “did make history” by holding the court’s first “Zoom trial.”

Covid delays one Roundup cancer trial while another looms

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The California trial pitting an elderly cancer victim against Monsanto owner Bayer AG has been delayed due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, with proceedings now expected to resume next week in a virtual format via Zoom.

Lawyers for plaintiff Donnetta Stephens say that she was a regular user of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years, an extended exposure that caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Before the trial interruption jury members heard expert witness testimony from former U.S. government scientist Christopher Portier, who told jurors of multiple scientific studies that support claims glyphosate herbicides cause NHL. Lawyers for Monsanto sought to discredit Portier, and discount his testimony, arguing he had a vested financial interest in helping plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Additional experts were due to testify this week before in-person proceedings were scuttled due to positive cases of the Covid-19 virus showing up among people in the courtroom.

Stephens was diagnosed with NHL in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health,  a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.

She is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

She and the others who have sued allege that Monsanto has known for decades of scientific research showing its glyphosate herbicides could cause cancer, but has failed to warn users of the risks, working instead to suppress information about potential dangers.

The company lost the three trials held to date.

Trial with child plaintiff is next

Though Bayer last year said it was moving to settle outstanding Roundup lawsuits, many remain active and headed toward trial.

A boy with non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the subject of a trial scheduled for Sept. 13 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Ezra Clark was “directly exposed” to Roundup many times as he accompanied his mother while she sprayed Roundup to kill weeds around the property where the family lived, according to court documents. Ezra sometimes played in freshly sprayed areas, according to the court filings.

Ezra was diagnosed in 2016, at the age of 4, with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a form of NHL that has a high tendency to spread to the central nervous system, and can also involve the liver, spleen and bone marrow, according to the court filings.

Ezra’s mother, Destiny Clark, is the plaintiff in the case, filing on behalf of Ezra.

Expedited trial sought for dying man

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who has been overseeing thousands of Roundup cases through multidistrict litigation proceedings set up in 2016 in federal court in the Northern District of California, has set several upcoming deadlines for moving cases forward that are under his purview. According to a court document filed Monday,  close to 4,000 cases have come under Chhabria’s oversight since the inception of the litigation.

Chhabria has ordered lawyers in the litigation to submit to him by Wednesday a list of certain cases that have not yet settled, and proposed schedules for advancing those cases. He also set a case management conference for Sept. 8.

At least one plaintiff is seeking an expedited trial, asking Chhabria to approve trial preference already granted him by a state court judge. Plaintiff Donald Miller was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup product for over four decades, according to the court filings.

Miller’s doctor estimated he had a five-year overall survival expectancy of only thirty-seven percent as of
February, 2020, according to court filings. A hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 23.

Many more cases remain pending in state courts, with plaintiffs’ lawyers jockeying for trial dates.

Bayer last week petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review one of its trial losses. The company claims federal law preempts key claims made in the litigation.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, insists that when used as directed, its glyphosate herbicides are safe and do not cause cancer. It says regulatory approvals support its position.

Bayer seeks U.S. Supreme Court review of Roundup trial loss

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Monsanto owner Bayer AG on Monday filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the high court’s review of one of its trial losses in the nationwide Roundup cancer litigation.

The move is widely seen as Bayer’s best hope for putting an end to claims that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the company failed to warn users of the risks. The company has thus far lost three out of three trials, and there are currently more than 100,000 existing plaintiffs as well as many more potential future plaintiffs expected to bring similar claims. Bayer has been trying to settle the cases and come up with a plan to limit, block or settle future claims.

Bayer’s writ of certiorari asks the court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Hardeman v. Monsanto. 

During the month-long trial in 2019, lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman presented jurors with a range of scientific research showing cancer connections to Monsanto’s herbicides as well as evidence of many Monsanto strategies aimed at suppressing the scientific information about the risks of its products. Internal Monsanto documents showed the company’s scientists had engaged in secretly ghost-writing scientific papers that the company then used to help convince regulators of product safety.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Monsanto should have warned consumers about the risks that its products could cause cancer. Lawyers in the other trials Monsanto lost presented similar arguments and evidence of cancer risk.

FIFRA fight

Bayer has said it hopes the Supreme Court will agree with Bayer’s position that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the United States, preempts those “failure-to-warn” claims that are central to the Roundup lawsuits. Because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved labels with no cancer warning, the failure-to-warn claims should be barred, the company maintains.

The petition filed Monday urges the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Hardeman trial loss on the grounds that FIFRA preempts a state-law failure to-warn claim “where the warning cannot be added to a product without EPA approval and EPA has repeatedly concluded that the warning is not appropriate.”

The petition also asks the court to address whether or not the Ninth Circuit’s standard for admitting expert testimony “is inconsistent with this Court’s precedent and Federal Rule of Evidence 702.” Bayer argues that the admission of expert testimony in the Hardeman case “departed from federal standards, enabling plaintiff’s causation witnesses to provide unsupported testimony on the principal issue in the case, Roundup’s safety profile.”

In its petition, Bayer argues: “The Ninth Circuit’s errors mean that a company can be severely punished for marketing a product without a cancer warning when the near-universal scientific and regulatory consensus is that the product does not cause cancer, and the responsible federal agency has forbidden such a warning.”

Hardeman lawyer Aimee Wagstaff said her legal team had been preparing for Bayer’s bid for Supreme Court review.

“While paying out billions of dollars to settle claims, Monsanto continues to refuse to pay Mr. Hardeman’s verdict.  That doesn’t seem fair to Mr. Hardeman.  Even so, this is Monsanto’s last chance Hail Mary,” Wagstaff said. “We are eager and ready to beat Monsanto at the Supreme Court and put this baseless preemption defense behind us once and for all.”

Bayer cites broad impact

The petition states that the decision in the Hardeman case, which was part of the multidistrict litigation handled in federal court, will “undoubtedly influence still others pending across the country.”

Bayer said in a statement: “The Petition underscores that consistent regulatory assessments in the U.S. and worldwide, and the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, support the conclusion that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe and not carcinogenic. In light of the EPA’s approval of the Roundup label without a cancer warning, any state-law failure-to-warn claims premised on such warning would plainly conflict with federal law and thus are preempted. Courts across the U.S. have divided on this basic question of when federal law preempts state law, which makes review by the U.S. Supreme Court both important and necessary. Indeed, it has been 16 years since the Supreme Court ruled on FIFRA preemption, and the prior case did not involve a warning that EPA had rejected.”

Lawyers for Hardeman did not respond to a request for comment.

Bayer has so far said it has earmarked more than $16 billion toward settling the Roundup litigation.

Appeals court rejects Bayer bid to overturn Roundup trial loss; cites Monsanto “reckless disregard” for consumer safety

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Monsanto owner Bayer AG has lost another appeals court decision in the sweeping U.S. Roundup  litigation, continuing to struggle to find a way out from under the crush of tens of thousands of claims alleging that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer.

In a decision handed down on Monday, the 1st Appellate District in the Court of Appeal for California rejected Monsanto’s bid to overturn the trial loss in a case brought by husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.

“We find that substantial evidence supports the jury’s verdicts,” the court stated. “Monsanto’s conduct evidenced reckless disregard of the health and safety of the multitude of unsuspecting consumers it kept in the dark. This was not an isolated incident; Monsanto’s conduct involved repeated actions over a period of many years motivated by the desire for sales and profit.”

The court specifically rejected the argument that federal law preempts such claims, an argument Bayer has told investors offers a potential path out of the litigation. Bayer has said it hopes it can get the U.S. Supreme  Court to agree with its preemption argument.

In May 2019 a jury awarded the Pilliods more than $2 billion in punitive and compensatory damages after lawyers for the couple argued they both developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma caused by their many years of using Roundup products.

The trial judge lowered the combined award to $87 million.

In appealing the loss, Monsanto argued not only that the Pilliod claims were preempted by federal law, but also that the jury’s causation findings were flawed, the trial court should not have admitted certain evidence, and that “the verdict is the product of attorney misconduct.” Monsanto also wanted the damage awards further slashed.

Court slams company

In the appeals court decision, the court left the award unchanged, and said that Monsanto had not shown that federal law did preempt such claims as those made by the Pilliods. The court also said there was substantial evidence that Monsanto acted with a “willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others,” supporting the awarding of punitive damages.

The evidence showed that Monsanto “failed to conduct adequate studies on glyphosate and Roundup, thus impeding discouraging, or distorting scientific inquiry concerning glyphosate and Roundup,” the court said.

The court also chastised Monsanto for not accurately presenting “all of the record evidence” in making its appeal: “But rather than fairly stating all the relevant evidence, Monsanto has made a lopsided presentation that relies primarily on the evidence in its favor. This type of presentation may work for a jury, but it will not work for the Court of Appeal.”

The court added: “The trial described in Monsanto’s opening brief bears little resemblance to the trial reflected in the record.”

“Summed up, the evidence shows Monsanto’s intransigent unwillingness to inform the public about the carcinogenic dangers of a product it made abundantly available at hardware stores and garden shops across the country,” the court said.

Another trial underway now

The Pilliod trial was the third against Monsanto. In the first trial, a unanimous jury awarded plaintiff Dewayne Johnson $289 million;  the plaintiff in the second trial was awarded $80 million.

The fourth trial began last week. A jury of seven men and five women on Monday were hearing testimony in the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California.  Retired U.S. government scientist Christopher Portier, who has been an expert witness for the plaintiffs in prior Roundup trials, testified at length on Monday, reiterating previous testimony that there is clear scientific evidence showing glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations such as Roundup can cause cancer.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has settled several other cases that were scheduled to go to trial over the last two years. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle about 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. Late last month, Bayer said it would set aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

Bayer also announced 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.

Bayer gets lift in pre-trial ruling ahead of Roundup cancer trial

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A California judge gave Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG a pre-trial boost in a ruling issued Monday, a week before the scheduled start of a new courtroom challenge to the safety of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

Judge Gilbert Ochoa of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California agreed with Monsanto that federal law regarding pesticide regulation and labeling preempts “failure to warn” claims under state law, and the plaintiff in the trial set to start next week will not be allowed to pursue such claims.

“The Court grants Defendant Monsanto Motion for Summary Adjudication of the 2nd and 4th causes of action on the grounds the failure to warn or concealment of glyphosate’s link to cancer is expressly and/or impliedly preempted” by federal law, Ochoa wrote in his order.

The decision was “surprising” to plaintiff’s attorney Fletcher Trammell, who is representing plaintiff Donnetta Stephens in the case against Monsanto. “Obviously we disagree,” he said. The issue could be subject of appeal at some point, he added.

The claims that Monsanto made an unsafe product and knowingly pushed it into the marketplace remain intact and will be presented at trial, according to Trammell.

More Than Two Years

It’s been more than two years since Bayer has had to defend the safety of Monsanto’s weed killing products at a trial. Monsanto has lost three out of three previous trials, with a jury in the last trial ordering a staggering $2 billion in damages due to what the jury saw as egregious conduct by Monsanto in failing to warn users of evidence – including numerous scientific studies – showing a connection between its products and cancer.

Lawyers for Stephens, a regular user of Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years, will try to prove that exposure to the glyphosate-based products made popular by Monsanto caused Stephens to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

The case is set for trial Monday July 26, delayed by one week as the court deals with a variety of pre-trial motions.  Stephens was diagnosed with NHL in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health,  a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.

Several other cases have either already been granted preference trial dates or are seeking trial dates for other plaintiffs, including at least two children, suffering from NHL the plaintiffs allege was caused by exposure to Roundup products.

Monsanto was purchased by Bayer AG in 2018 and is no longer a stand-alone company but is the named defendant in ongoing litigation, which began in 2015 after cancer experts consulted by a unit of the World Health Organization determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to NHL.

Roughly 100,000 people in the United States have claimed they developed NHL because of their exposure to Roundup or other Monsanto-made glyphosate-based herbicides.

Preemption Argument

Bayer sees the preemption argument as critical to its ability to limit the ongoing litigation liability. The company has made it clear that it hopes at some point to get a U.S. Supreme Court finding that under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) position that Monsanto’s herbicides are not likely to cause cancer essentially bars complaints that Monsanto didn’t warn of any cancer risk.

Critics of that position point to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences, which established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law. Citing the law and the Bates precedent, more than a dozen federal and state courts have rejected the preemption argument.

But some legal experts argue the rejections of the preemption argument in the Roundup litigation are flawed and believe Bayer has a solid defense on that issue.

If Bayer can ultimately get a U.S. Supreme Court win on the preemption question, it could thwart the key claims brought by tens of thousands of plaintiffs and potentially save Bayer from significant ongoing legal liability costs.

In the first trial against Monsanto, a unanimous jury awarded plaintiff Dewayne Johnson $289 million; the plaintiff in the second trial was awarded $80 million; and the jury in the third trial awarded more than $2 billion to husband-and-wife plaintiffs. All the awards were reduced sharply by judges involved in the cases but the verdicts assigning blame to Monsanto for the cancers have not been overturned.

Bayer settlement

Bayer said last year that it had agreed to pay close to $11 billion to settle existing Roundup cancer claims, but many law firms have dismissed the individual offers for their clients as insufficient, and they continue to press for more trials.

Additionally, Bayer has thus far failed to get court approval for varying proposals to try to create a class action settlement program for people who bring cancer claims in the future. After a stinging rebuke of its plans by a federal judge overseeing much of the litigation, Bayer said it is considering pulling Roundup products from the U.S. market for residential users, though not from farm use.

The case is Stephens v. Monsanto CIVSB2104801 in the Superior Court of California – County of San Bernardino.

Elderly woman to take on Monsanto in next trial over cancer claims

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An elderly California woman who was a regular user of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer for more than 30 years is set as the next person to try to prove that exposure to the chemical causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a claim already won by plaintiffs in three previous trials.

The case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto is set for trial July 19 in San Bernardino County Superior Court in California. Stephens from Yucaipa, California was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health,  a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.

Several other cases have either already been granted preference trial dates or are seeking trial dates for other plaintiffs, including at least two children, suffering from NHL the plaintiffs allege was caused by exposure to Roundup products.

Monsanto was purchased by Bayer AG in 2018 and is no longer a stand-alone company but is the named defendant in ongoing litigation, which began in 2015 after cancer experts consulted by a unit of the World Health Organization determined glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s  Roundup, is a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to NHL.

Some old evidence, some new

The Stephens case is expected to involve many of the same expert witnesses and same documents and deposition testimony that helped plaintiffs win the prior trials, said Stephens’ lawyer Fletch Trammell. Two new experts who have not testified previously in Roundup trials will be called, however, said Trammell. They are Barry Boyd, an oncologist from Yale Cancer Center, and Luoping Zhang, an adjunct professor of toxicology at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

Zhang is the lead author of a meta-analysis published in 2019 that determined research showed “a compelling link” between exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides, such as Roundup, and increased risk for NHL.  The analysis found that people with high exposures to the popular pesticides have a 41 percent increased risk of developing NHL.

Monsanto has long maintained that there is no legitimate scientific research showing a definitive association between glyphosate and NHL or any type of cancer. A 2020 meta-analysis could be useful to  Monsanto’s defense. That report concluded that there is “no overall evidence of an increased risk” for NHL “in subjects occupationally exposed to glyphosate.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has supported the safety of glyphosate products, saying the agency’s analysis of scientific evidence shows the chemical is “not likely” to cause cancer.

The company claims the scientists with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC),  who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, engaged in improper conduct and failed to give adequate weight to several important studies.

But the juries in the three prior trials found the evidence so overwhelming in favor of plaintiffs that they awarded the plaintiff in the first trial $289 million; the plaintiff in the second trial $80 million; and more than $2 billion to the husband-and-wife plaintiffs in the third trial. All the awards were reduced sharply by judges involved in the cases but the verdicts assigning blame to Monsanto for the cancers have not been overturned.

Bayer settlement issues

Bayer said last year that it had agreed to pay close to $11 billion to settle close to 100,000 Roundup cancer claims, but many law firms have dismissed the individual offers for their clients as insufficient, and they continue to press for more trials.

Additionally, Bayer has thus far failed to get court approval for varying proposals to try to create a class action settlement program for people who bring cancer claims in the future. After a stinging rebuke of its plans issued last month by a federal judge overseeing much of the litigation, Bayer said it is now considering pulling Roundup products from the U.S. market for residential users, though not from farm use.

There are thousands of plaintiffs still awaiting either settlement offers or trial settings, and as they wait, the deaths mount. Another woman who was granted a trial preference in a December court order, died only a month later, in January. 

The last trial held concluded in May 2019. Since then several other trials have been scheduled but Monsanto settled each case before the trials started.

Trammell said so far Monsanto has not made any settlement offer for the Stephens case and has made only what he called “nuisance value” five-figure offers for other clients he represents.

“She used Roundup for over 30 years, and had heavy exposure,” Trammell said of Stephens. “There is no non-Hodgkin anywhere in her family tree.  They are rolling out the same defenses and I think they’re going to lose on the same grounds.”

According to court filings, Stephens health has deteriorated significantly in the last year:

“The pain and weakness Ms. Stephens experiences in her feet and legs cause her to stumble and fall frequently, and she relies on her husband to walk behind her in case she should fall. Id. Because of this pain and weakness, Ms. Stephens is no longer able to drive a car. Ms. Stephens also suffers from
severe vertigo and very regularly passes out due to the intense dizziness she experiences. 
Formerly, Ms. Stephens was an active individual who loved to tend to her neighbors’ gardens.
Now, she can barely walk and must use a cane or walker to support herself.  Her physician
has informed her that she will need a wheelchair in the near future. Using her own word, Ms.
Stephens describes the pain she experiences as though she is getting shot through with electricity.
As this description reflects, the pain Ms. Stephens experiences is relentless, unabated, and all-consuming, causing this once former active individual to live her life in a perpetual state of fear of undertaking the simple task of movement.”

Bayer did not respond to a request for comment.

The case is Stephens v. Monsanto CIVSB2104801 in the Superior Court of California – County of San Bernardino.

Judge shoots down Bayer’s plan to limit future Roundup legal liability, issues harsh criticism

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(UPDATED May 27 with Bayer statement about new plans)

The federal judge overseeing nationwide Roundup litigation on Wednesday denied Bayer’s latest attempt to limit its legal liability from future cancer claims associated with its glyphosate-based herbicides, citing numerous “glaring flaws” in a settlement proposed to apply to Roundup users who have not yet sued the company but may want to do so in the future.

Saying parts of the plan were “clearly unreasonable” and unfair to cancer sufferers who would be part of the class settlement, U.S. Judge Vince Chhabria castigated Bayer and the small group of lawyers who put the plan together in conjunction with Bayer.

He pointed out that the company has been “losing trials left and right” in claims brought by people suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) who alleged exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides were the cause.

Bayer has owned Monsanto since 2018 and has been struggling to defend the cancer claims ever since. 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 NHL while Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

Elizabeth Cabraser, one of the lawyers who structured the settlement plan, said the proponents were “disappointed” by the ruling and “continue to believe that a multi-billion-dollar class settlement that includes free legal services and substantial compensation to claimants, NHL diagnostic assistance, research into NHL treatment, and Roundup label reform to inform users and the public on all the science regarding a Roundup/NHL link, would provide tremendous financial, health and safety benefits for class members.”

But one of the lead objectors to the plan, lawyer Majed Nachawati, said Cabraser had attempted to “create a sham settlement” that would have harmed the legal rights of “thousands of injured Americans.”

Bayer issued a statement following the judge’s order saying it would consider “the future of glyphosate-based products in the U.S. residential market,” though any changes there would “not affect the availability of glyphosate-based products in markets for professional and agricultural users.” The company said discussions about the future of residential Roundup products was part of a “five-point plan” the company would now pursue.

“The new package of measures, which combine a number of legal and commercial actions, is designed to help the company achieve a level of risk mitigation that is comparable to the previously proposed national class solution,” Bayer said.

Evidence favors plaintiffs, judge says

Judge Chhabria said in his decision that the company’s desire to set up a “science panel” to determine whether or not the herbicides actually cause cancer rather than leave that question to future juries is because of the trial losses the company has so far suffered.

The “reason Monsanto wants a science panel so badly is that the company has lost the ‘battle of the experts’ in three trials, the judge wrote in his order.  “At present, the playing field on the issue of expert testimony related to causation is slanted heavily in favor of plaintiffs.”

The ruling comes after a lengthy hearing last week held to discuss widespread opposition by personal injury attorneys across the United States to the settlement proposal. The proposed plan called for Bayer to put up roughly $2 billion for a series of actions that would help the company avoid future Roundup cancer trials.

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 NHL they attribute to their Roundup exposure. It would apply to people who already have NHL but who have not yet sued the company and to people who develop NHL in the future.

The plan was structured by Bayer in coordination with a small team of plaintiffs’ lawyers who stood to be paid millions of dollars for their participation.

Proponents of the proposed class action plan told the judge it “will save lives,” and provide “speedy compensation” to people who get NHL they blame on Roundup exposure.

But opponents said the proposal actually did little for cancer patients while benefiting Bayer and the lawyers who helped develop the plan.

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.

Another key problem with the plan, according to critics, is that everyone in the United States who meets the criteria as a potential plaintiff would automatically become part of the class and subject to its provisions if they did not actively opt out of the class within a specified time period. If people did not opt out – even if they didn’t know about the plan – they would be stripped of  the right to seek punitive damages if they ever did file a lawsuit.

“Monsanto tried to buy its own system of justice and it is wonderful that the court saw through what they were trying to do,” said lawyer Gerson Smoger, who is among the opponents.  “The settlement would’ve been a travesty for those who use Roundup.”

Separate from larger settlement

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 Chhabria. The judge has been overseeing the federal multidistrict Roundup litigation involving thousands of plaintiffs from around the United States.

Bayer’s desire to find a settlement is “not surprising because the alternative to settling – continuing to lose trials left and right – is not attractive,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

“In sum, the settlement proposed by these attorneys would accomplish a lot for Monsanto,” he wrote. “It would substantially diminish the company’s settlement exposure and litigation exposure at the
back end, eliminating punitive damages and potentially increasing its chances of winning trials
on compensatory damages. It would accomplish far less for the Roundup users who have not
been diagnosed with NHL—and not nearly as much as the attorneys pushing this deal contend.”

Bayer’s new plan

Bayer said in addition to consideration of withdrawing Roundup from residential use, the company’s  plan includes the following:

  • Creation and promotion of a new website with scientific studies relevant to Roundup safety, and a request that EPA approves corresponding language on Roundup labels.
  • Exploration of the creation of an independent scientific advisory panel comprised of external scientific experts to review scientific information regarding the safety of Roundup. The results would be released publicly and added to the new website.
  • Continuation of settlement discussions and continuing appeals of the two of the three cases lost at trial. The company already exhausted appeals in the first case it lost at trial. Bayer is hoping to get a case to the U.S. Supreme Court and get a favorable ruling on its position that state-based failure-to-warn claims conflict with, and are preempted by, federal law.