Dozens of lawsuits potentially worth tens of millions of dollars in damages are in the works in Hawaii targeting Monsanto Co. and its weed-killer Roundup, lawyers who have filed two of the lawsuits said.
Michael Green, who filed a federal products liability suit earlier this month against Monsanto, said he expects to file at least six or seven more suits in the next several weeks alleging Roundup caused his clients to develop a form of cancer called non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Meanwhile, Brian Mackintosh, a former associate of Green’s who has filed a similar suit in state court, said he has an additional 35 clients lined up.
The Hawaii lawsuits come as Monsanto, which is now owned by the German chemical firm Bayer AG, faces thousands of similar actions across the U.S.
In the first wave of cases, tried in California, the company has been hit with massive damage awards, including one jury award of more than $2 billion. A state court judge later reduced that to $86.7 million. In another case, a federal judge cut a $75 million jury award to about $25 million.
Still, the mounting damages have caused many to question the wisdom of Bayer buying Monsanto, if not the future of the company. Citing the litigation, The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday called Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto “one of the worst corporate deals in recent memory.” The newspaper pegged the number of plaintiffs suing Bayer at more than 18,000.
Bayer is a major player in Hawaii’s agriculture industry, where seed crops such as corn have replaced sugar and pineapple as Hawaii’s top cash crop. While the value of Hawaii’s seed crops has dropped since peaking around 2011 at almost $250 million, it still totaled about $120 million in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That was more than twice the value of the number two crop, macadamia nuts, which totaled about $53.9 million, according to the USDA.
Much of the seed industry’s work involves developing seed that has been genetically modified to tolerate weed-killers such as Roundup. The idea is that farmers can more easily tend fields by spraying to kill the weeds without killing the produce, such as corn plants.
The lawsuits don’t focus on those operations, but instead on individuals who used Roundup more the way average folks do: to tend yards, farms, nurseries and the like.
Mackintosh’s client, Bruce Pied, allegedly got cancer from using Roundup to help take care of a coffee and macadamia nut farm in Kealakekua, on the Big Island, for instance.
Green’s client, Lawrence Dixon, used Roundup while running a landscaping business and got cancer as a result, the suit alleges.
The company’s Hawaii attorney, Paul Alston, declined to comment, and the national counsel, Joe Hollingsworth, could not be reached. A local spokeswoman for Bayer also declined to comment.
While the bulk of the Roundup lawsuits are being managed by the federal courts, which decide the order and locations in which trials will take place, Mackintosh’s case on Pied’s behalf is an exception. The Honolulu lawyer maneuvered to keep the suit in state court on the Big Island, which means it could go to trial well before Green’s federal case and leapfrog the vast majority of federal cases around the nation.
Green, meanwhile, said he’s seeking to sign up clients who have merely been exposed to Roundup, and thus face the risk of getting cancer, he said.
Although the facts of the two Hawaii cases differ, they share a general allegation: that Monsanto sought to stifle information that raised questions about Roundup’s safety while doing relatively little to do its own rigorous research.
For example, Mackintosh’s suit points to an anecdote involving Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute who was a columnist for Forbes magazine. Under the guise of writing independent articles, Miller wrote pieces attacking the findings of studies showing Roundup posed risks, the suit says.
But Mackintosh’s colleagues on the mainland turned up documents showing that Monsanto had drafted the articles at Miller’s request. Forbes fired Miller when it discovered the scheme, the suit says.
U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria pointed to such conduct by Monsanto, which he called “reprehensible,” when he reduced a jury award to comport with federal standards. While Chhabria said the plaintiffs in the California federal suit had not definitively proven that the main ingredient in Roundup causes cancer, there was plenty of evidence that the company turned a blind eye to research indicating it poses risks, and even tried to quash it.
“While Monsanto repeatedly intones that it stands by the safety of its product, the evidence at trial painted the picture of a company focused on attacking or undermining the people who raised concerns, to the exclusion of being an objective arbiter of Roundup’s safety,” Chhabria wrote. “For example, while the jury was shown emails of Monsanto employees crassly attempting to combat, undermine or explain away challenges to Roundup’s safety, not once was it shown an email suggesting that Monsanto officials were actively committed to conducting an objective assessment of its product.”
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