As It Happens

It's about justice, not money in $2B US Roundup verdict, lawyer says

Plaintiffs Alva and Alberta Pilliod just want to see Roundup maker Bayer brought to justice, says lawyer Brent Wiseman.

A jury accepted a California couple's claims that the herbicide contributed to their cancer

From left, Alva Pilliod, lawyer Brent Wisner and Alberta Pilliod appear at a news conference on May 13, 2019, in San Francisco, a few hours after an Oakland, Calif., jury ordered Monsanto Co. to pay the Pilliods $2.055 billion US. (Paul Elias/Associated Press)


For 30 years, Alva and Alberta Pilliod used the weedkiller Roundup on their property in Northern California — and they say the Monsanto-made product caused them both to get cancer.

Now, a jury has agreed — and ordered the company, which is now owned by Bayer, to pay just over $2 billion US in damages to the couple. 

Bayer has vowed to appeal, and maintains that the product is safe. In an emailed statement, Bayer said in part that it has not decided on the specifics of its appeal, "but it could potentially cover that the scientific evidence presented at trial failed to prove that Roundup caused plaintiffs' cancer, that there is no basis for a different warning given the international consensus that Roundup is safe, and that the claims in this case are preempted by federal law."

Brent Wisner, a lawyer for Alva and Alberta Pilliod, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about Monday's verdict.

Mr. Wilson, first of all how did your clients react when the jury announced this $2 billion verdict?

I think my clients were very happy and appreciative of the jury. For Mr. and Mrs. Pilliod, it's really not about the money. It's about doing justice against this company. 

What evidence did you present that the jury believe showed that [your clients' non-Hodgkin's lymphoma] was caused by Roundup?

Well for the last 45 years there's been an increasing volume of studies in animals and laboratory experiments, as well as in human populations who are spreading this stuff as part of their jobs. And the data pretty much across the board has shown that it is in fact causing a specific type of cancer.

In animals, we see it consistently causing malignant lymphoma, and in humans we see it highly associated with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

German pharmaceutical giant Bayer bought Monsanto, the chemical company behind Roundup, in 2018. The company plans to appeal the verdict. (CBC)

And when you put all that together and you look at each of the Pilliods' medical histories and personal experiences and you compare, "What are the things that could have caused their actual cancer?" the single thing that kind of unifies them is that they had over 35 years of exposure to Roundup. 

[Bayer] point out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves glyphosate, which is in Roundup. It says the consensus among leading health regulators worldwide is that it's safe, it's not carcinogenic, it's used all around the world, has 40 years of extensive scientific research to support those conclusions. What do you say to Bayer?

Well I think Bayer knows, and we know, that those regulatory agencies are wrong. We also know that they are essentially captured by the industry. We have internal emails and text messages between senior Monsanto and now Bayer officials and EPA officials. We have the same relationships with people at Health Canada. And the simple fact is that these regulators are not doing their jobs.

We have consistently seen that when independent scientists look at the science ... saying, "OK, does this cause cancer?" every single time that happens, they conclude that it does.

We saw that with the International Agency for Research on Cancer*. We saw that with a scientific advisory panel that was convened to assess the EPA's own analysis. 

Bottles of an herbicide called 'Roundup' are display on a store shelf.
Bottles of Roundup herbicide are displayed on a store shelf in St. Louis, Mo., on June 28, 2011. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

The only people who say it doesn't cause cancer appears to be Bayer.

*Editor's note: In a press release issued Monday, Bayer called the IARC report "an outlier among international health regulators and scientific bodies" and that "plaintiffs in this case presented the jury with cherry-picked findings from a tiny fraction of the volume of studies available."

They also say, though, that both your clients have long histories of illnesses that are known to increase the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. So how can you be so certain that Roundup was the cause of their cancers?

Well that's exactly what they told the jury. And after five weeks of hearing that nonsense, the jury rejected that argument. I mean, the simple fact is we all have things that are risk factors. 

You know, one of the things that people understand is that cancer is multi-factorial and it's multi-causal. When you take someone like Mr. Pillliod or Mrs. Pilliod who do have risk factors, there's no question about that, and you add glyphosate in Roundup to the equation, it's kind of like putting lighter fluid on a barbecue. It exacerbates the underlying condition.

A woman uses a Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller spray without glyphosate in a garden in Ercuis near Paris, France on May 6, 2018. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

It's the largest settlement, but not the first, against Roundup. And do you think that Bayer will respond? Do you think that it's possible Roundup will be taken off the market?

I don't think Bayer's prepared to do that just yet. I actually was co-lead trial counsel in the first case that went to trial ... the Johnson case where we got a $289 million verdict*. Obviously this one is much larger, and I think the reason for that is because we have just more evidence.

*Editor's note: A judge reduced damages in the Johnson case to $78 million.

You know, we told Bayer repeatedly they have a problem and they need to sit down with us and figure out a way to do right by these people and find a way to take care of these people who are sick because of their conduct. And they've systematically refused to participate in that discussion. And until they do we're going to continue to hold them accountable.

Written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.