My Turn: Monsanto jury member weighs in on pesticide ban

The Hawaii County Council is considering Bill No. 101 relating to herbicide use. I would like to share my experience with this issue.

I have lived in Hilo since 2002 and also maintain residence in San Francisco. My in-laws, wife and children are all graduates of Hilo High School. For business reasons I remain a legal resident of San Francisco.

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In June 2018, I was selected to serve on a San Francisco Superior Court jury in a case called Johnson vs. Monsanto. It was the first-ever civil case against Monsanto, brought by a groundskeeper linking a glyphosate-based herbicide with his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

After a six-week trial that involved hours of expert testimony about herbicides and cancer, my jury decided unanimously that the herbicide presented substantial danger to persons using the product, that Monsanto failed to adequately warn of these risks and that it knew or reasonably should have known of these dangers, and that this failure to warn was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff (that harm being cancer with expected mortality within a year).

Although in a civil trial in California only nine of 12 jurors need to agree for a verdict, we unanimously agreed to award the plaintiff $39,253,209.32 in compensatory damages. Because we further agreed that by “clear and convincing evidence that Monsanto acted with malice or oppression in the conduct” upon which we based our verdict, we further awarded the plaintiff $250 million in punitive damages. The trial court judge reduced our award of punitive damages to match the compensatory damages, but this decision in currently under appeal. Mr. Johnson is still alive at present, but has received no damage payments while Monsanto is appealing.

My jury did not have to conclude that glyphosate definitively causes cancer in humans. Our task was simply to find that it was more likely than not that the herbicide could have caused cancer and that Monsanto was derelict in its duty to determine the product’s safety and to product consumers and applicators.

We were influenced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Heath Organization) classification of glyphosate in 2015 as a “probable carcinogen” and by Monsanto’s internal emails displaying a deliberate lack of interest in any product safety research on glyphosate-based herbicides.

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So my conclusion is that glyphosate-based herbicides are potentially carcinogenic, probably more to county employees serving as applicators than to the general public (although this may simply point to the need for much more research into the general impact). Bill No. 101 is therefore important for both worker and public safety.

Gary Kitahata is a resident of Hilo.