Monsanto’s triumph over junk science

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Defense attorneys turn the tables by exposing massive conflicts of interest

This op-ed was originally published by the Washington Times.

One of the country’s most vilified companies prevailed in a recent jury trial against sympathetic witnesses in the “judicial hellhole®” that is the 21st Judicial District of Missouri. The story of how the truth won out over an elaborate scheme cooked up by junk scientists and the trial bar is worth exploring.

All 10 jurors in that St. Louis courtroom sided with Monsanto after a month of testimony that opened with plaintiffs brought to tears as they recalled the horror of learning of their diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a severe form of cancer. Expert witnesses testified that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s signature Roundup weedkiller, was to blame for triggering the disease.

The trial bar successfully monetized the same argument in June 2020, to the tune of over $10 billion in settlements and verdicts. Yet more trials are underway, featuring a long list of victims of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who were attracted by a $60 million advertising campaign holding out the hope of “substantial compensation.”

But the St. Louis case fell apart under cross-examination as their expert witnesses proved less than credible. 

One of those expert witnesses, William Sawyer, advertised on his LinkedIn resume that he was a “board-certified toxicologist.” But when confronted on the stand, was forced to admit he was unable to obtain certification from the American Board of Toxicology after twice failing the required exam. Mr. Sawyer then turned to Robert O’Block, founder of the American College of Forensic Examiners, who supplied an appropriate diploma. However, Mr. O’Block was so willing to certify any paying customers that some reports say he once certified a cat. 

Mr. Sawyer’s “career” as a full-time expert witness in glyphosate product liability trials has made him a millionaire. Billing $785 an hour, he’s collected $2.5 million from his testimony in four Roundup trials.

But at least Mr. Sawyer had academic training in toxicology. By contrast, fellow expert witness Charles Benbrook testified about glyphosate’s health effects despite having no training in medicine, chemistry or epidemiology. Mr. Benbrook, an economist, took a physics course in college — that’s the sum of his formal education in the sciences.

Mr. Benbrook runs the Heartland Health Research Alliance (HHRA), which produces studies linking cancer to herbicides such as Roundup, as well as competing herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-D. His studies are likely laying the groundwork for a future lawsuit against those products. 

The trial bar values Mr. Benbrook’s endeavors, rewarding him $1.3 million for his testimony in addition to his $220,000 salary. The trial bar not only provides funding to Mr. Benbrook’s nonprofit, scientific research organization, but it also provides management direction. HHRA’s vice chair, Robin Greenwald, is a partner at Weitz & Luxenberg — one of the many firms suing Monsanto.

Trial lawyers funding and managing the organization producing “scientific” studies cited as evidence in a trial is a clear conflict of interest. But conflicts of interest aren’t new to Mr. Benbrook. A few years ago, he was caught coordinating his academic work with outside interests, forcing the New England Journal of Medicine to update a paper it published to reveal Mr. Benbrook’s previously undisclosed funding from litigators and the organic food industry. In April, Cornell University microbiologist Kathleen Hefferon pointed out that another scientific journal article co-authored by Mr. Benbrook violated clear ethical standards for peer review.

There’s a reason the trial bar turned to individuals with dubious credentials and a loose appreciation of ethical norms — the truth simply isn’t on their side.

Environmental safety agencies in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union have spent decades reviewing the health impacts of glyphosate. All agree that no credible evidence exists linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But one outlier organization says otherwise. An advisory group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) deemed glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.” In 2017, a senior scientist on that IARC panel testified critical evidence favorable to glyphosate had been withheld and would likely have changed IARC’s conclusion. The panel, however, was run by Christopher Portier, a scientist who received $160,000 from litigators and worked under the direct supervision of Ms. Greenwald.

It seems that most evidence against Monsanto was produced by individuals under the direct financial sway of litigators.

It’s a tribute to the resilience of our judicial system that a set of brave jurors stood for the truth in this instance, but it’s also a warning. Judges and state legislatures across the country must implement reforms to align expert evidence standards with those set forth by the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Supreme Court. This will ensure jurors hear only evidence reflecting the true consensus of the scientific community and not unproven conclusions of paid litigation “experts.” Ultimately, the onus falls on individual judges to prevent lawsuit abuse and junk science in their courtrooms.    

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