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In 'The Monsanto Papers,' Carey Gillam Goes Deep On Roundup Legal Battles

Author Carey Gillam.
Provided / Island Press
Author Carey Gillam.

In 2018, a Northern California groundskeeper, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, took Monsanto parent company Bayer to trial over claims that using its weedkiller Roundup had led to his cancer. Johnson had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014. His case went to trial on an expedited basis because lawyers feared he was near death, making him the first person to try his claims in court.

The trial was a bloodbath for Monsanto. The jurors returned a unanimous verdict against the company — and awarded Johnson $289.2 million.

The legal battle against Monsanto is the subject of Carey Gillam’s new book. “The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man’s Search for Justice” takes readers behind the scenes as Johnson’s lawyers, and others like them, plot against the agriculture giant. Much like “A Civil Action,” which pulled back the curtain on a landmark water contamination case, Gillam’s book offers a you-are-there look at high-stakes litigation and the people whose fortunes are won, or lost, based on what happens in court.

As Gillam explained on St. Louis on the Air, after that huge verdict, Johnson’s award was reduced dramatically. The trial court judge and the California appellate court both slashed the total amount, leaving Johnson with just $20.5 million, plus interest.

And he didn’t even get that, as Gillam noted. He’d agreed to give his lawyers 40% of the total, plus expenses. He has to pay taxes. Some money even has to go to repay Medicaid for his medical bills. “He’s certainly not walking away with the money he thought he was going to after that jury verdict,” she said.

Still, Gillam said the litigation had led to changes at Bayer. The company, she said, is now considering a warning label for Roundup.

She noted that the company acquired Monsanto not long before Johnson’s case went to trial, and the huge jury verdict seemed to come as a shock.

“It’s been quite a bit of turmoil for the company,” she said. “Everything has been rocked by this liability they assumed. No one can understand how they missed this freight train headed their way.”

St. Louis on the Air reached out to Bayer-Monsanto, offering it an interview to discuss the book or to include a statement. It provided this statement (you can hear it in its entirety in the podcast of the conversation with Gillam), which reads in part: “We continue to stand behind the safety of our glyphosate-based Roundup products. This view is also supported by leading health authorities and their independent findings in the United States, the European Union, and many other countries around the world.

“At Bayer, we welcome robust discussion about our products and we take seriously the views of people with different opinions. Carey Gillam’s views are well known, both individually and on behalf of the advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, for which Ms. Gillam is director of research. ... Ms. Gillam has frequently criticized Monsanto and later, Bayer and has also worked very closely with U.S. law firms bringing litigation against our company.”

Previously a reporter for Reuters, Gillam currently writes for the Guardian and also serves as the research director for the nonprofit organization U.S. Right to Know. She said the organization is a research group, not an advocacy group. Using the Freedom of Information Act, she said, “We gather documents that are relevant to public health policy, and we make them available online for other journalists to use, or lawmakers, or whomever needs them.”

As for the reference saying she “worked closely” with the firms, “What does that mean?” Gillam asked. “I reported. I did interviews, I did download documents as soon as they became available from one of the law firms. … I did reporting. What are they going to say? It’s noteworthy that they don’t say anything in my reporting or in my books is wrong.”

She acknowledged that she’s been critical of the company over the years but said its actions are to blame for that. “The Monsanto papers” that give her book its title — first uncovered during litigation, and which Gillam played a role in exposing to the world — don’t suggest the company knowingly gave anyone cancer, but they do suggest it worked hard to create the perception its product was safe, to the point of (in the words of its employees) ghostwriting sections of scientific papers and attempting to influence regulators.

Of the allegations in court, she said: “There’s a question: Does this cause cancer? That’s not for me to answer. Has the company been deceiving people? That clearly is answered in these documents, and clearly was answered through this litigation, and clearly was answered before. Both of those things are intertwined, but you have to understand there’s a nuance there.”

As for Lee Johnson, his case was rushed to court because he wasn’t expected to live to see the year 2020 — one reason his claim that Roundup caused his cancer was the first of its kind to go to trial. Yet he has defied expectations by staying alive, at least for now.

Of his case, Gillam acknowledged mixed feelings. “It’s a really imperfect system, and it's not the best way we should be protecting consumers from public health dangers, from defective products. We need better regulations. We need stronger laws. We need our government to be protecting people. We shouldn’t be relying on mass tort attorneys to do this for us.

“But for now, it’s really the only way out there to hold companies accountable.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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