A former groundskeeper for a California school district is the first person to take Monsanto to trial over allegations it suppressed evidence that its Roundup herbicide have cancer-causing properties. The trial began on June 18, and ABC News reports the case has been fast-tracked because of the groundskeeper's failing health.

If successful, the lawsuit could be the first in a line of litigation for the global seed and chemical company. If it fails, cases similar to Johnson's will be significantly weakened.

Weeding out the truth

DeWayne Johnson, 46, worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District in California from 2012 to 2015. In that role, he sprayed Roundup herbicides on school properties. Johnson was healthy when he started the job, but in August 2014, he received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

By January 2018, Johnson's body was 80 percent covered in lesions, according to the deposition of his physician; he is often unable to speak or leave his bed, despite a new treatment he started in January. His doctors say he may only have months to live.

Johnson's lawsuit alleges that Monsanto's product caused his cancer, and that Monsanto was aware of the medical risks posed by its glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, but covered it up through a campaign of misinformation and attacks on studies that proclaimed the dangers.

In May, Judge Curtis Karnow ordered that jurors in the trial may consider the scientific evidence regarding Johnson's cancer as well as the allegations that Monsanto knowingly suppressed findings regarding glyphosate's potential cancer-causing dangers. Jurors may also consider punitive damages.

"The internal correspondence noted by Johnson could support a jury finding that Monsanto has long been aware of the risk that its glyphosate-based herbicides are carcinogenic … but has continuously sought to influence the scientific literature to prevent its internal concerns from reaching the public sphere and to bolster its defenses in products liability actions," Karnow wrote in the order. "Thus there are triable issues of material fact."

A Monsanto corporate sign in France Monsanto is accused of misleading the public regarding the safety of glyphosate-based herbicides. (Photo: ricochet64/Shutterstock)

The California-filed lawsuit is just one of many pending, The Guardian reports, with around 4,000 plaintiffs or their families suing Monsanto over NHL allegedly developed because of exposure to Roundup. One such case is scheduled to go to trial in October in Monsanto's home town of St. Louis.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, and California declared it one in 2017.

For its part, Monsanto has denied the allegations and disputes various studies that found glyphosate poses risks to human health. Instead, the company points to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, among others, that found that Roundup isn't carcinogenic.

"Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product," Monsanto writes in a glyphosate safety document. "Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide."

Monsanto intends to argue that other factors led to Johnson's cancer and will further dispute the scientific claims and studies Johnson's lawsuit uses to build its case. Additional expert testimony and studies like the EPA one mentioned above will be used to counter Johnson's claims.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since May 2018.