By Frederick H. Lowe
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District, in the San Francisco Bay Area, was experiencing severe skin irritation from spraying Ranger Pro, a generic version of Roundup. The product is a weed killer containing glyphosate made by Monsanto Co., a leader in the manufacture of agricultural products.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic in humans, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The Netherlands has voted to ban glyphosate-based herbicides and France is expected to follow suit. Brazil recently requested a ban on the product.
During the spraying season, Johnson used 150 gallons a day and some of it would leak through his backpack and his shirt onto his skin.
Johnson e-mailed Monsanto to learn if it his skin irritation was caused by Roundup, according to Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman PC, a law firm based in Washington D. C., which represented him. The Miller Firm LC, which is based in Orange, Virginia, also represented him.
Monsanto employees discussed Johnson’s queries among themselves in e-mails, but they never responded to him, according to court documents supplied by Baum, Hedlund.
In August 2014, physicians diagnosed Lee with epidermotropic T-cell lymphoma. Physicians treated him with chemotherapy throughout 2015 but his cancer continued to spread, according to Baum, Hedlund. He sued Monsanto in 2016. A year later, a biopsy revealed mycosis fungoides (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with large cell transformation).
Meanwhile, the 46-year-old Johnson’s condition was worsening; he was developing open sores and lesions on his hands and back.
Johnson filed a lawsuit against Monsanto on January 28, 2016, charging that exposure to Ranger Pro caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After an eight-week trial, a jury unanimously found that Roundup caused Johnson to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He is now very ill and is expected to die from the disease.
The jury also ruled that Monsanto refused to warn of this severe health hazard and that the company acted with malice, “oppression or fraud and should be punished for its conduct.” Last year, California required Monsanto to place a warning label on Roundup.
Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos, of the Superior Court of San Francisco, ordered Monsanto, which is based in Waterman, Illinois, to pay Johnson $289 million — $250 million in punitive damages and $39.2 million in compensatory damages.
Monsanto is owned by Bayer AG, the maker of Bayer aspirin, which is based in Leverkusen, Germany. Bayer completed a $66 billion takeover of Monsanto in June.
The ruling gave Bayer a big headache, but the company said it will appeal the decision.
A Bayer spokesperson told the BBC that the company is confident, based on the strength of the science and the conclusions of regulators around the world as well as decades of experience, that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used.
A Monsanto research chemist discovered in 1970 that glyphosate was an effective herbicide and could be used to eradicate weed growth that threatened optimal crop development. By 1974 the company brought the herbicide Roundup to the marketplace. Monsanto now reports annual revenues of $14.6 billion from herbicides containing glyphosate.
Bayer’s stock recently dropped 11.28 percent. In 2017, the company reported $39.58 billion in revenues.
Johnson is the first person to take Monsanto to court and he won’t be the last. Some 4,000 people nationwide are expected to file lawsuits in state and federal courts against Monsanto, alleging that Roundup causes cancer.
Johnson said he hopes the settlement is paid quickly to help his wife, Araceli, who has had to work two jobs to support their family.