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Terminally Ill Man Awarded $289 Million In Lawsuit Against Monsanto


A jury in San Francisco ordered the biotech and chemical company Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a man suffering from cancer. The jurors concluded that one of the company's top-selling products, the weed killer widely known as Roundup, made that man sick. It's a stunning setback for Monsanto and perhaps for the whole pesticide industry. NPR's Dan Charles has covered the case, and he's here in the studio to explain. Good morning, Dan.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Lay out the facts of the case.

CHARLES: So a man named Dewayne Johnson worked as a groundskeeper at a school. He used this weed killer a lot, Roundup. He got - there were leaks, and he got drenched in it a couple of times. He was worried about it. And then he got cancer. And several groups that have been longtime critics of Monsanto and its products - they came to his aid and filed this lawsuit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. Is it pretty clear science-wise that the chemicals in Roundup caused cancer? Because that's still widely available. People use it all the time.

CHARLES: No. It's not clear at all, actually. So three years ago, there was an international group of scientists, part of the WHO, the World Health Organization - came to - issued a report, came to the conclusion that it probably does cause cancer, this active ingredient in Roundup called glyphosate.

But a bunch of other organizations, including regulatory bodies that are actually supposed to look at real-world risks from exposure - they have looked at the same studies, mostly involving mice and rats and the effect of the chemical on cells in the laboratory. And they've come to the opposite conclusion - that it probably does not cause cancer. I mean, there's a big study of farm workers, 50,000 farm workers. And in that study, the workers who were exposed to glyphosate or Roundup have not gotten cancer at any higher rates.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the stakes seem really high for this - right? - because, I mean, it is so widely used. But the jury in this case decided that they believe that it caused cancer.

CHARLES: Right, which sometimes happens in these jury trials when you're confronted with a real, suffering human being. But there's another thing going on, which is quite interesting. Basically, the plaintiffs put Monsanto on trial, and they went back through years of internal emails in the company. And they basically came up with lots of evidence that the company was not interested in finding any risks in its product and was interested in shutting out - shutting down scientific debate about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What's the takeaway here for you as someone who's reported on this industry, on these issues for so long?

CHARLES: What I find most interesting is the fact that the jury did not believe or give credibility to the - sort of the official institutions that are responsible for evaluating safety of a chemical. It didn't matter what the EPA says, the Environmental Protection Agency or the European Food Safety Agency (ph). The plaintiffs basically said the government is too cozy - the regulators are too cozy with the companies. And that was convincing to the jury.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Dan Charles. Dan, thank you so much.

CHARLES: Nice to be here.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say that groups who are longtime critics of Monsanto and its products came to Dewayne Johnson's aid. That is correct. We should not have implied that they filed his lawsuit, however.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 14, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we say that groups who are longtime critics of Monsanto and its products came to Dewayne Johnson's aid. That is correct. We should not have implied that they filed his lawsuit, however.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.