A key trial concerning the controversial weed killer Roundup — a trade name for glyphosate — is being held in San Francisco. At issue is whether or not Roundup and Monsanto are responsible for a California man's cancer.
The maker of the controversial herbicide Roundup, Bayer's subsidiary Monsanto, went on trial again on Monday in the United States, six months after a groundskeeper won the first-ever lawsuit alleging that the active ingredient it contains causes cancer.
Roundup contains glyphosate, a chemical that environmentalists and other critics have long maintained is carcinogenic. Roundup is a brand owned by German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer after its purchase of US-based Monsanto last year.
Bayer says decades of studies have established that glyphosate is safe.
Glyphosate is used in weed killers made by several companies, and is currently the most-used herbicide around the world.
As the trial began, a lawyer for the plaintiff, California resident Edwin Hardeman, told the court that Roundup contained other chemicals that made the herbicide more toxic than glyphosate alone, leading to Hardeman's cancer.
'Inaccurate, false and misleading
Last August, jurors unanimously found that Monsanto acted with "malice" and that its weed killers Roundup and Ranger Pro contributed "substantially" to groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson's terminal illness.
Hardeman, like Johnson, has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). A factor that may weaken his case against Roundup, however, is that he has a history of hepatitis C, a risk factor for the disease.
He says he used Roundup extensively to treat his property from the 1980s until 2012, according to his lawyers.
He filed a complaint against Monsanto in early 2016, a year after being diagnosed with cancer.
According to the complaint, the company "knew or had reason to know that Roundup was defective and unsafe" and that exposure to the product "could result in cancer and other severe illnesses and injuries."
Information that Monsanto provided or communicated "failed to contain adequate warnings and precautions that would have enabled Mr. Hardeman, and similarly situated individuals, to utilize the product safely and with adequate protection," Hardeman's lawyers added.
Instead, the company "disseminated information that was inaccurate, false, and misleading," they alleged.
Monsanto, which has sold Roundup worldwide for more than 40 years, is holding firm to its line of defense. It says the products based on glyphosate, which also include Ranger Pro, are not dangerous if the conditions of use are followed.
Critical case — first in federal court
Hardeman's is the leading case in a multi-district litigation of hundreds of similar cases which are legally linked, but will be heard separately.
Although it is not a class-action lawsuit, the outcome of the Hardeman case will provide a signal for the other jurisdictions.
Like the Johnson trial, the new case will be held in San Francisco but it will be the first heard in a federal court, where some legal technicalities differ from the state level where Johnson won his case.
The Johnson precedent will loom over the new trial, which should last four to five weeks.
Johnson was diagnosed in 2014 with NHL, a cancer that affects white blood cells. He said he repeatedly used Ranger Pro while working at a school in Benicia, California.
Jurors in his case ordered Monsanto to pay $250 million (€220 million) in punitive damages along with compensatory damages and other costs, bringing the total award to nearly $290 million.
Judge Suzanne Bolanos, who presided over the case in California State Court, later denied Monsanto's request for a new trial — but reduced the damages to $78 million to comply with a law regarding how such awards must be calculated.
The ruling sent Bayer shares tumbling on fears that a wave of costly litigation could be about to break on the firm.
In November, Bayer said it would slash 12,000 jobs in a restructuring after the takeover of Monsanto, which asked a US appeals court to toss out the Johnson verdict.
At Bayer's request, the Hardeman trial will be conducted in two stages. The first phase will seek to determine whether Roundup is responsible for the complainant's cancer.
If the jury concludes that it is, the next step will be to decide whether or not Monsanto has a liability and, if so, what compensation should be paid.
For the judge, Vince Chhabria, the two-stage process aims to help the jury decide the possible liability of glyphosate without being influenced by the reputation of Monsanto, which has a controversial image all over the world and has been accused of having manipulated studies.
Under scrutiny in Europe
Farmers have praised the product for its effectiveness and low cost. Glyphosate is under particular scrutiny in Europe. In France, authorities in January banned a form of the herbicide, Roundup Pro 360.
In Germany, from 2020, farmers will be required to set aside 10 percent of their farmland to protect biological diversity if they want to use glyphosate and similar herbicides, the government announced last autumn.
The European Union renewed its authorization of glyphosate for five years in November 2017, but French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to outlaw its use in France by 2021.
A study by a World Health Organization agency in 2015 concluded that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic."
Environmental groups including Greenpeace have called for an outright ban on glyphosate in Europe but Monsanto insists that the herbicide meets EU licensing standards.
av/ng (AFP, AP)