After three stunning courtroom losses in California, the legal battle over the safety of Monsanto’s top-selling Roundup herbicide is headed for the company’s hometown, where corporate officials can be forced to appear on the witness stand, and legal precedence shows a history of anti-corporate judgments.
Sharlean Gordon, an cancer-stricken woman in her 50s, is the next plaintiff currently set for trial. Gordon v. Monsanto starts Aug. 19 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, located just a few miles from the St. Louis, Missouri-area campus that was the company’s longtime world headquarters until Bayer bought Monsanto last June. The case was filed in July 2017 on behalf of more than 75 plaintiffs and Gordon is the first of that group to go to trial.
According to the complaint, Gordon purchased and used Roundup for at least 15 continuous years through approximately 2017 and was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006. Gordon has gone through two stem cell transplants and spent a year in a nursing home at one point in her treatment. She is so debilitated that it is difficult for her to be mobile.
Her case, like that of the thousands of others filed around the United States, alleges use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“She’s been through hell,” said St. Louis attorney Eric Holland, one of the legal team members representing Gordon. “She’s horribly injured. The human toll here is tremendous. I think Sharlean is really going to put a face on what Monsanto’s done to people.”
Gordon said the hardest part about preparing for trial is determining what evidence to present to the jury within the three-week time span that the judge has set for the trial.
“This evidence against them, their conduct, is the most outrageous I’ve seen in my 30 years of doing this,” Holland said. “The things that have gone on here, I want St. Louis juries to hear this stuff.”
That Gordon trial will be followed by a September 9 trial also in St. Louis County in a case brought by plaintiffs Maurice Cohen and Burrell Lamb.
Monsanto’s deep roots in the community, including a large employment base and generous charitable donations throughout the area, could favor its chances with local jurors. But on the flip side, St. Louis is regarded in legal circles as one the most favorable places for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against corporations and there is a long history of large verdicts against major companies. St. Louis City Court is generally considered the most favorable but St. Louis County is also desired by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The approach of the August and September trials comes on the heels of a stunning $2 billion verdict issued against Monsanto May 13. In that case, a jury in Oakland, California awarded married couple Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who both suffer from cancer, $55 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion each in punitive damages. The jury found that Monsanto has spent years covering up evidence that its herbicide causes cancer.
That verdict came only a little more than a month after a San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto to pay $80 million in damages to Edwin Hardeman, who also developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup. And last summer, a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson who received a terminal cancer diagnosis after using Monsanto herbicides in his job.
Aimee Wagstaff, who was co-lead counsel for Hardeman, is set to try the Gordon case in St. Louis with Holland. Wagstaff said she plans to subpoena several Monsanto scientists to appear on the witness stand to answer questions directly in front of a jury. She and the other attorneys trying the California cases were not able to force Monsanto employees to testify live because of the distance.
Mediation Meeting May 22
The trial losses have left Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG under siege. Angry investors have pushed share prices to the lowest levels in roughly seven years, erasing more than 40 percent of Bayer’s market value. And some investors are calling for Bayer CEO Werner Baumann to be ousted for championing the Monsanto acquisition, which closed in June of last year just as the first trial was getting underway.
Bayer maintains that there is no valid evidence of cancer causation associated with Monsanto’s herbicides, and says it believes it will win on appeal. But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has ordered Bayer to begin mediation talks aimed at potentially settling the sprawling mass of lawsuits that includes roughly 13,400 plaintiffs in the United States alone. All the plaintiffs are cancer victims or their family members and all allege Monsanto engaged in a range of deceptive tactics to hide the risks of its herbicides, including manipulating the scientific record with ghostwritten studies, colluding with regulators, and using outside individuals and organizations to promote the safety of its products while making sure they falsely appeared to be acting independently of the company.
A May 22 hearing is being held in part to define details of the mediation process. Bayer has indicated that it will comply with the order, but may not yet be ready to consider settling the litigation despite the courtroom losses.
Meanwhile, the litigation that originated in the United States has crossed the border into Canada where a Saskatchewan farmer is leading a class action lawsuit against Bayer and Monsanto making allegations that mirror those in the U.S. lawsuits.
“The Queen of Roundup”
Elaine Stevick of Petaluma, California was supposed to be the next in line to take on Monsanto at trial. But in his order of mediation, Judge Chhabria also vacated her May 20 trial date. A new trial date is to be discussed at the hearing on Wednesday.
Stevick and her husband Christopher Stevick sued Monsanto in April of 2016 and said in an interview that they are eager to get their chance to confront the company over the devastating damage they say Elaine’s use of Roundup has done to her health. She was diagnosed in December 2014 at the age of 63 with multiple brain tumors due to a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called central nervous system lymphoma (CNSL). Alberta Pilliod, who just won the most recent trial, also had a CNSL brain tumor.
The couple purchased an old Victorian home and overgrown property in 1990 and while Christopher worked on renovating the interior of the house, Elaine’s job was to spray weed killer over the weeds and wild onions that the couple said took over a good portion of the property. She sprayed multiple times a year until she was diagnosed with cancer. She never wore gloves or other protective clothing because believed it to be as safe as advertised, she said.
Stevick is currently in remission but nearly died at one point in her treatment, Christopher Stevick said.
“I called her the ‘queen of Roundup’ because she was always walking around spraying the stuff,” he said.
The couple attended parts of both the Pilliod and Hardeman trials, and said they are grateful the truth about Monsanto’s actions to hide the risks are coming into the public spotlight. And they want to see Bayer and Monsanto start warning users about the cancer risks of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides.
“We want the companies to take responsibility for warning people -even if there is a chance that something would be harmful or hazardous for them, people should be warned,” Elaine Stevick said.
(Published first in Environmental Health News)
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