A Weed Killer that May be Killing People

Posted by Neil Shouse | Nov 19, 2018 | 0 Comments

A San Francisco jury awarded $250 million in punitive damages this past August to former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, who claimed he developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma from the weed killer Roundup.

The judge has since slashed the punitive damages down to $39 million. But Johnson's stunning verdict serves as a promising “bellwether” case for the thousands of other similar lawsuits currently pending against Roundup manufacturer Monsanto (which was recently acquired by Bayer AG).

Link between Roundup and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Agricultural company Monsanto brought Roundup to market in the mid-1970s. Since then both commercial farmers and home gardeners throughout the U.S. – including California and Nevada – have relied on it to keep their crops and flowerbeds clear of weeds.

The world's most popular herbicide, Roundup has been approved by the Environment Protection Agency and hailed as safe in many studies. However, other studies suggest a link between exposure to the weed killer and certain cancers, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). For example:

  • A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2014 identified an NHL risk in workers who were exposed to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup).1
  • The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 actually classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogenic in humans” based on various studies.2
  • The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) ran tests that showed how Roundup is much more toxic than just glyphosate. In fact, NTP contends the test results show that Roundup substantially changes human cells' viability by interfering with the cell membranes' ability to function.3

Predictably, Monsanto vehemently denies any link between Roundup and terminal cancer.

NHL is a cancer of the body's lymphatic system. Common symptoms include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms or groin
  • Coughing or chest pain
  • Skin lesions
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Distended abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss

There are several types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and the disease may respond to various treatments including chemotherapy and radiation. As with most cancers, it is harder to treat the later it is caught.

First Roundup lawsuit is promising for plaintiffs

To date, there are thousands of pending lawsuits against Monsanto by plaintiffs arguing that Roundup caused their injuries. Hundreds of them have been consolidated into a federal “MDL” (short for “multi-district litigation”) out of the Northern District of California. The purpose of MDLs is to streamline pretrial litigation.

The first (“bellwether”) Roundup case to go to trial was Dewayne Johnson's, which was fast-tracked partly because he was given only two years to live. Johnson had sprayed Roundup regularly over three years while working as a pest control manager for a San Francisco Bay Area school district. He was only 42 when he was diagnosed with NHL in 2014.

After three days of deliberation, Johnson's 16-member California Superior Court jury determined that Roundup was a substantial contributing factor to causing Johnson's cancer. The jury also determined that Monsanto failed to provide a warning label about the herbicide's potential health hazards.

Ultimately, the jury awarded Johnson the following damages:

  • $6 million in actual damages,
  • $33 million in pain and suffering, and
  • $250 million in punitive damages (which has since been reduced to $39 million)

Monsanto is fighting the verdict, and the judge in the case indicated that she may order a new trial regarding the pain and suffering and punitive damages awards: The judge believes the plaintiff's attorney may have made improper statements during closing arguments. The judge is also concerned the plaintiff may have fallen short of producing clear and convincing evidence of Monsanto's malice or oppression.4

Even still, Johnson's victory will undoubtedly encourage the untold thousands of other people who may have fallen ill from Roundup to pursue lawsuits. It could also cause Monsanto to consider offering generous settlements instead of risking more unfavorable verdicts at trial. 

UPDATE 3/19: Cecilia Smith-Schoenwalder, "Man Awarded $80 Million in Lawsuit Linking Roundup Weed Killer to Cancer," U.S. News & World Report (March 28, 2019)

  1. Schinasi L, Leon ME, “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticide chemical groups and active ingredients: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 11 (4): 4449-527 (April 2014).
  2. Cressey D, “Widely used herbicide linked to cancer”, Nature (March 25, 2015).
  3. Carry Gillam, “Weedkiller products more toxic than their active ingredient, tests show”, The Guardian (May 8, 2018).
  4. Holly Yan, “Judge denies Monsanto's request to scrap $250 million punishment -- but drops it to $39 million”, CNN (October 23, 2018).

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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