Roundup Trial Kicks off with Controversy
As the first of a new series of court cases brought by cancer patients against the former agrochemicals giant Monsanto – now part of Bayer – got under way in San Francisco on Feb. 25, the presiding judge threatened to sanction a lawyer for violating an agreed ban on discussing Monsanto’s possible influence on government regulators and cancer research.
News reports quote Judge Vince Chabria as reprimanding Aimee Wagstaff, counsel for Edwin Hardeman, a 70-year-old California man who claims his exposure to Roundup over several decades caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma, that he would “shut her down” if she again overstepped the agreed argumentation parameters
In preparation for what promises to be a lengthy stream of testimony lasting up to 2022, the judge had granted Bayer’s petition to divide the current case into two parts.
In the first phase, expected to conclude in about two weeks, the court will seek to determine whether there is reliable scientific evidence linking glyphosate to cancer. In the event of a positive answer – which in light of all the efforts to date would seem hard to achieve – the jury would consider whether Monsanto exerted undue influence when assessing potential liability and levying punitive damages.
The unusual two-stage process has led Monsanto critics to charges that the court is bowing to the agrochemicals industry. The separation has already handed the victory to the herbicide producer, some of the critics claim.
The restrictions on testimony about Monsanto’s conduct and its alleged manipulation of science are likely to be a major detriment to Hardeman and future plaintiffs, Jean M. Eggen, a professor emerita at Widener University Delaware Law School, said in a widely quoted comment.
Arguing that Monsanto has “for years” suppressed negative studies and worked to promote or “ghost write” favorable studies about the herbicide, Hardeman’s lawyers are leveraging a 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s international agency for research on cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Other studies, with slightly different perspectives, have been unable to prove a link.
The current case is regarded as a bellwether trial for hundreds of other plaintiffs in the upcoming trials who have made similar claims.
In the first of more than 9,000 pending lawsuits inherited by Bayer with the Monsanto takeover, a jury last autumn found that Roundup had caused the plaintiff’s lympnoma and awarded the terminally ill California greenskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million including $39 million in punitive damages.
A judge later reduced the payout to $78 million. Bayer is appealing.
After losing the first case, Bayer replaced the Monsanto-appointed counsel with a new team. Earlier this week, the Leverkusen-based group repeated earlier statements that scientific evidence supports the conclusion that glyphosate “is not likely to be a human carcinogen.”