How a groundskeeper with cancer took on agricultural giant Monsanto — and won

Dewayne Lee Johnson's lawyer says his client can rest easy knowing his family will be provided for, thanks to his precedent-setting victory over Monsanto.

Monsanto ordered to pay $289M US in California Roundup lawsuit over cancer claims

Plaintiff Dewayne Lee Johnson looks on at the start of the Monsanto trial in San Francisco on July 9. ( Josh Edelson/Reuters)
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Dewayne Lee Johnson's lawyer says his client can rest easy knowing his family will be provided for when he dies, thanks to his precedent-setting victory over agricultural giant Monsanto.

A California jury on Friday ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson $289 million US in damages after he alleged in court that the company's glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup gave him non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer

Monsanto denies that glyphosate, the world's most widely used herbicide, causes cancer and plans to appeal the ruling.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says glyphosate is not likely cancerous, while the World Health Organization's cancer arm has classified it as "probably carcinogenic to humans."

Johnson's lawyer Brent Wisner spoke to As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway about the case. Here is part of their conversation. 

Start off, if you would, by telling us how your client Dewayne Lee Johnson is doing?

His most recent scan is actually not very promising. It's shown that his cancer, which had abated for a few months, is actually spreading pretty aggressively. 

Physically, he's not doing well. But I think emotionally, he's doing pretty darned well. He's really proud of what we've done and what his case has accomplished. 

What does the verdict mean to him?

Not knowing what caused your cancer can be very, very upsetting and very disturbing. But he now knows — and he now has vindication from an unanimous jury — that, in fact, it was the Roundup.

Although it doesn't change the fact that his cancer is going to probably win, it does give him some comfort knowing that, you know, he found the source, he did something good with it and, you know, his family will be taking care of.

This photo shows containers of Roundup, a weed killer made by Monsanto, on a shelf at a hardware store in Los Angeles. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

What was his exposure to Roundup? 

He was using it on a school ground where, during the summer months, he would spray it almost every day and he'd be spraying about 150 gallons every morning.

He was drenched a couple of times in this pesticide.

He didn't use a typical, like, backpack sprayer. He was using basically a pressure washer that was attached to a truck, and he'd have to lug the hose around as he was spraying it, and it was spraying it at a very large volume.

One time it actually broke off the machine and started gushing out and he actually had to go and physically stop the gushing because he was worried that this chemical would be spread around the school ground.

Attorney Brent Wisner speaks during opening remarks at the start of the Monsanto trial. ( Josh Edelson/Reuters)

Did he have a sense at the time ... of the potential dangers of this chemical?

He did take precautions. He did wear a suit that was supposed to limit his exposure. He wore gloves.

But, you know, he also said — and he was told by the distributor of the product — that this stuff was safe.

In fact, what he testified to was that it was safe enough to drink. That's what he was told, and that's what he was led to believe.

When he said he got this very rare cancer... he started asking around.

He actually called Monsanto twice and said, "Hey, could this be the cause of my cancer?" 

They took down his information and they said someone would call him back — and then no one ever did.

[Monstanto's] saying that there has been scientific evidence taken out of context, that the verdict, in the words of Scott Partridge, the VP of Monsanto, "does not change the four-plus years of safe use and science behind the product."

They've quoted something like 800 different scientific studies saying that this product is safe. Why is there daylight between the scientific studies that you've quoted and what Monsanto is quoting?

Because they're throwing up a lot of garbage just to sort of blind people.

Those 800 studies that you're out there that he's referring to aren't about cancer. They're about things that have absolutely nothing to do with cancer. They have to do with eye irritation. They have to do skin irritation. They have to do with birth defects.

When you actually look at the cancer studies on glyphosate and Roundup, there's about 20. And if you actually look at those studies, the vast majority of them are positive.

Monsanto defence attorney George Lombardi speaks during trial. (Josh Edelson/Reuters)

The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has never found the chemical within Roundup to be a cause of cancer. What does that tell you?

It tells me there's something wrong in the EPA.

We showed the jury text messages, e-mails, a sort of relationship between Monsanto and the EPA that would disturb anybody who cares about public health.

The company that owns Monsanto — Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant — saw its shares drop something like 11 per cent today. There are other lawsuits that are coming as well. If you take a look at the big picture, what's the significance of this verdict for Monsanto? 

I think this is hopefully a wake-up call.

What does that mean?

Monsanto needs to warn people, "Hey, this stuff might cause cancer." You know, buyer beware. And then give people that choice.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Produced by Sarah Cooper. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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