Monsanto is facing its first federal trial over allegations that its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer, but a US judge has blocked attorneys from discussing the corporation’s alleged manipulation of science.
In an extraordinary move in a packed San Francisco courtroom on Monday, US judge Vince Chhabria threatened to sanction and “shut down” a cancer patient’s attorney for violating his ban on talking about Monsanto’s influence on government regulators and cancer research.
“You’ve completely disregarded the limitations that were set upon you,” the visibly angry judge said to attorney Aimee Wagstaff, threatening to prevent her from continuing. “If you cross the line one more time … your opening statement will be over … If I see a single inappropriate thing on those slides, I’m shutting you down.”
The unusual conflict in the federal courtroom has fueled concerns among Monsanto’s critics that the trial may be unfairly stacked against the plaintiff, Edwin Hardeman, a 70-year-old Santa Rosa man who alleges that his exposure to Roundup over several decades caused his cancer. Building on longstanding allegations, Hardeman’s lawyers and other critics have argued that Monsanto has for years suppressed negative studies and worked to promote and “ghostwrite” favorable studies about its herbicide to influence the public and regulators.
In a blow to the plaintiffs, Chhabria this year approved Monsanto’s request to prohibit Hardeman’s attorneys from raising allegations about the corporation’s conduct, saying issues about its influence on science and government were a “significant … distraction”. That means jurors must narrowly consider the studies surrounding Roundup’s cancer risks, and if they rule that Monsanto caused Hardeman’s illness, then in a second phase the jury would learn about the company’s conduct when assessing liability and punitive damages.
Hardeman’s trial is considered a “bellwether” case for hundreds of other federal plaintiffs who have made similar claims, meaning its outcome could have an impact on the course of future litigation and potential settlements. The high-stakes case comes amid growing global scrutiny of the health impacts of glyphosate, which is sold under the Roundup brand.
Concerns about the product escalated last August after a California jury issued an historic verdict, saying Monsanto was liable for a terminally ill man’s cancer and owed him $289m in damages. The groundbreaking ruling against Monsanto set the stage for a new wave of cancer litigation in the US and sparked regulatory debates and campaigns to restrict the chemical across the globe.
Monsanto is now owned by German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which suffered a 30% share price drop after the verdict and is now facing more than 9,000 similar lawsuits across the country.
Wagstaff told the Guardian last week before trial began that the limitations on evidence in the first phase meant the “jury will only hear half of the story”.
“The jury will hear about the science, but they won’t get to hear about how Monsanto influenced it,” she said. “The jury won’t have a complete understanding of the science. If we win without the jury knowing the complete science, that’s a real problem for Monsanto.”
Chhabria repeatedly interrupted Wagstaff’s opening statement Monday morning, reminding jurors that her comments did not constitute evidence and should be taken with a “grain of salt”. He also asked her to speed up when she was introducing Hardeman and his wife and discussing how they first met in 1975.
Wagstaff spoke in detail about the research on cancer and glyphosate, about some of Monsanto’s involvement in studies, and about the company’s communications with the Environmental Protection Agency. Eventually, the judge ordered the jury to take a break and issued his threat to sanction Wagstaff, though it was unclear which specific statements he had opposed.
When she tried to clarify her remarks, noting that she had clearly made the judge “upset”, Chhabria responded: “It’s not about being upset. It’s about running an orderly trial.”
He then ordered her to file a written motion by the end of the day arguing why he should not sanction her – and said he was considering a fine of $1,000.