A San Francisco jury today ordered agribusiness giant Monsanto to pay US$289 million ($439.1m) to a former school groundskeeper dying of cancer, saying the company's popular Roundup weed killer contributed to his disease.
The lawsuit brought by Dewayne Johnson was the first to go to trial among hundreds filed in state and federal courts saying Roundup causes non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which Monsanto denies.
Jurors in state Superior Court agreed the product contributed to Johnson's cancer and the company should have provided a label warning of the potential health hazard. Johnson's attorneys sought and won US$39m in compensatory damages and US$250m of the US$373m they wanted in punitive damages.
"This jury found Monsanto acted with malice and oppression because they knew what they were doing was wrong and doing it with reckless disregard for human life," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a member of Johnson's legal team.
"This should send a strong message to the boardroom of Monsanto."
Monsanto has denied a link between the active ingredient in Roundup — glyphosate — and cancer, saying hundreds of studies have established that glyphosate is safe.
Johnson used Roundup and a similar product, Ranger Pro, as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, his lawyers said. He sprayed large quantities from a 50-gallon tank attached to a truck, and during gusty winds, the product would cover his face, said Brent Wisner, one of his attorneys.
Once, when a hose broke, the weed killer soaked his entire body.
Johnson read the label and even contacted the company after developing a rash but was never warned it could cause cancer, Wisner said. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014 at age 42.
"The simple fact is he is going to die. It's just a matter of time," Wisner told the jury in his opening statement last month.
But George Lombardi, an attorney for Monsanto, said non-Hodgkin's lymphoma takes years to develop, so Johnson's cancer must have started well before he began working at the school district.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says Roundup's active ingredient is safe for people when used in accordance with label directions.
However, the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classified it as a "probable human carcinogen" in 2015. And California added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.