by Carey Gillam
A California judge gave Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG a pre-trial boost in a ruling issued Monday, a week before the scheduled start of a new courtroom challenge to the safety of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.
Judge Gilbert Ochoa of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California agreed with Monsanto that federal law regarding pesticide regulation and labeling preempts “failure to warn” claims under state law, and the plaintiff in the trial set to start next week will not be allowed to pursue such claims.
“The Court grants Defendant Monsanto Motion for Summary Adjudication of the 2nd and 4th causes of action on the grounds the failure to warn or concealment of glyphosate’s link to cancer is expressly and/or impliedly preempted” by federal law, Ochoa wrote in his order.
The decision was “surprising” to plaintiff’s attorney Fletcher Trammell, who is representing plaintiff Donnetta Stephens in the case against Monsanto. “Obviously we disagree,” he said. The issue could be subject of appeal at some point, he added.
The claims that Monsanto made an unsafe product and knowingly pushed it into the marketplace remain intact and will be presented at trial, according to Trammell.
More Than Two Years
It’s been more than two years since Bayer has had to defend the safety of Monsanto’s weed killing products at a trial. Monsanto has lost three out of three previous trials, with a jury in the last trial ordering a staggering $2 billion in damages due to what the jury saw as egregious conduct by Monsanto in failing to warn users of evidence – including numerous scientific studies – showing a connection between its products and cancer.
Lawyers for Stephens, a regular user of Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years, will try to prove that exposure to the glyphosate-based products made popular by Monsanto caused Stephens to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The case is set for trial Monday July 26, delayed by one week as the court deals with a variety of pre-trial motions. Stephens was diagnosed with NHL in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health, a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.
Several other cases have either already been granted preference trial dates or are seeking trial dates for other plaintiffs, including at least two children, suffering from NHL the plaintiffs allege was caused by exposure to Roundup products.
Monsanto was purchased by Bayer AG in 2018 and is no longer a stand-alone company but is the named defendant in ongoing litigation, which began in 2015 after cancer experts consulted by a unit of the World Health Organization determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to NHL.
Roughly 100,000 people in the United States have claimed they developed NHL because of their exposure to Roundup or other Monsanto-made glyphosate-based herbicides.
Bayer sees the preemption argument as critical to its ability to limit the ongoing litigation liability. The company has made it clear that it hopes at some point to get a U.S. Supreme Court finding that under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) position that Monsanto’s herbicides are not likely to cause cancer essentially bars complaints that Monsanto didn’t warn of any cancer risk.
Critics of that position point to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences, which established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law. Citing the law and the Bates precedent, more than a dozen federal and state courts have rejected the preemption argument.
But some legal experts argue the rejections of the preemption argument in the Roundup litigation are flawed and believe Bayer has a solid defense on that issue.
If Bayer can ultimately get a U.S. Supreme Court win on the preemption question, it could thwart the key claims brought by tens of thousands of plaintiffs and potentially save Bayer from significant ongoing legal liability costs.
In the first trial against Monsanto, a unanimous jury awarded plaintiff Dewayne Johnson $289 million; the plaintiff in the second trial was awarded $80 million; and the jury in the third trial awarded more than $2 billion to husband-and-wife plaintiffs. All the awards were reduced sharply by judges involved in the cases but the verdicts assigning blame to Monsanto for the cancers have not been overturned.
Bayer said last year that it had agreed to pay close to $11 billion to settle existing Roundup cancer claims, but many law firms have dismissed the individual offers for their clients as insufficient, and they continue to press for more trials.
Additionally, Bayer has thus far failed to get court approval for varying proposals to try to create a class action settlement program for people who bring cancer claims in the future. After a stinging rebuke of its plans by a federal judge overseeing much of the litigation, Bayer said it is considering pulling Roundup products from the U.S. market for residential users, though not from farm use.
The case is Stephens v. Monsanto CIVSB2104801 in the Superior Court of California – County of San Bernardino.