California Man Accepts $78 Million Award in Roundup Lawsuit

Monsanto has maintained that its Roundup herbicides are completely safe. defotoberg/Shutterstock

A case that raised questions about what the maker of Roundup knew about the dangers of its popular Roundup product has turned a new page. Dewayne "Lee" Johnson has agreed to accept a $78 million settlement after a judge upheld the jury’s original ruling but slashed the civil case’s $289 million award.

Johnson's case was the first to directly connect Roundup with deadly cancer. Bayer, which acquired Roundup earlier this year, faces about 8,000 more lawsuits, according to Reuters.

The company says it plans to appeal.

In August, Judge Suzanne Bolanos lowered the punitive damages from $250 million to $39 million, the same amount awarded for compensatory damages. Bolanos gave Johnson and his attorneys until Dec. 7 to either accept the new amount or ask for a new trial, a call they answered this week. At the time, Bolanos said she was considering eliminating the entire $250 million in punitive damages because she said there was no compelling evidence that Monsanto ignored evidence that Roundup caused cancer. In the end, Bolanos decided to honor the jury's ruling and instead lowered the amount of punitive damages.

It was an outcome DeWayne Johnson's family wasn't sure he would see in person.

Lawyers for Johnson focused their efforts on proving Monsanto suppressed evidence that its Roundup herbicide has cancer-causing properties. Opening statements began in San Francisco on July 9.

Johnson's attorney said Monsanto took away his client's freedom to choose, reported KGO. "If you don't give someone a choice and somebody gets hurt or, God forbid, gets cancer, then I personally believe and I think you will as well that you should be responsible for the consequences of that," attorney Brent Wisner said.

"I don't think it's a surprise that after 20 years, Monsanto has known about the cancer-causing properties of this chemical and has tried to stop the public from knowing it," said attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Monsanto argued that Johnson developed cancer before using Roundup. "The scientific evidence is overwhelming that Glyphosate-based products do not cause cancer and did not cause Mr. Johnson's cancer," said defense attorney George Lombardi. "The single most relevant study — best study, study of human beings who, like Mr. Johnson, are licensed pesticide applicators — concluded glyphosate is not associated with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Mr. Johnson's cancer."

Weeding out the truth

DeWayne Johnson, 46, worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District in California from 2012 to 2015. In that role, he sprayed Roundup herbicides on school properties. Johnson was healthy when he started the job, but in August 2014, he received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

By January 2018, Johnson's body was 80 percent covered in lesions, according to the deposition of his physician; he is often unable to speak or leave his bed, despite a new treatment he started in January. At the time, his doctors thoughts he might only have months to live.

Johnson's lawsuit alleged that Monsanto's product caused his cancer, and that Monsanto was aware of the medical risks posed by its glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, but covered it up through a campaign of misinformation and attacks on studies that proclaimed the dangers.

In May, Judge Curtis Karnow ordered that jurors in the trial may consider the scientific evidence regarding Johnson's cancer as well as the allegations that Monsanto knowingly suppressed findings regarding glyphosate's potential cancer-causing dangers.

"The internal correspondence noted by Johnson could support a jury finding that Monsanto has long been aware of the risk that its glyphosate-based herbicides are carcinogenic ... but has continuously sought to influence the scientific literature to prevent its internal concerns from reaching the public sphere and to bolster its defenses in products liability actions," Karnow wrote in the order. "Thus there are triable issues of material fact."

A Monsanto corporate sign in France
Monsanto is accused of misleading the public regarding the safety of glyphosate-based herbicides. ricochet64/Shutterstock

The California-filed lawsuit is just one of many pending, The Guardian reports, with around 4,000 plaintiffs or their families suing Monsanto over NHL allegedly developed because of exposure to Roundup. One such case is scheduled to go to trial in October in Monsanto's home town of St. Louis. Also, a judge in San Francisco ruled earlier this summer that hundreds of lawsuits could proceed to trial.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, and California declared it one in 2017.

For its part, Monsanto has denied the allegations and disputes various studies that found glyphosate poses risks to human health. Instead, the company points to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, among others, that found that Roundup isn't carcinogenic.

"Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product," Monsanto writes in a glyphosate safety document. "Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide."

In the Johnson case, Monsanto argued that other factors led to Johnson's cancer and disputed the scientific claims and studies Johnson's lawsuit used to build its case.