Lawsuits against Monsanto Co. grow as naturally as weeds.
The biocide maker’s response is to try killing the complaints with motions for dismissal.
But the company recently lost one such motion in U.S. District Court in Madison, where a class-action suit — with a demand for a jury trial — has been filed on behalf of consumers who purchased Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.
“They tried to get rid of the case and failed,” said Brent Wisner, an attorney in the case.
The lawsuit alleges Monsanto, based in Missouri, and Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., based in Ohio, falsely promote Roundup weed killer as safe for people and pets.
Advertising, promotions on YouTube and product labeling say Roundup works by interfering with an enzyme in plants that’s not “in people or pets.” The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, kills weeds by interfering with an enzyme that governs amino-acid formation.
The class action suit, filed a year ago in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, argues beneficial bacteria in the human gut and the guts of other mammals — as well as mucous membranes and skin — depend on that enzyme to function properly.
“All these bacteria that comprise the large portion of our body mass, they rely on that enzyme to live and thrive,” said Wisner, of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman P.C.
Another case making that argument was filed in April 2017 by Richman Law Group on behalf of Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The lawsuit also alleges Monsanto misled consumers with false advertising and product labeling that Roundup is safe for people and pets.
“The disruption of the gut biome is associated with a host of 21st-century diseases, including asthma, autism, bacterial vaginosis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Crohn’s disease, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome, multiple sclerosis, obesity, Type 1 and 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
In May, Monsanto lost its motion to dismiss that case when U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly ruled the organizations presented enough evidence to support their allegations against the company.
“The science on the hazards of Roundup — glyphosate — are clear and Monsanto officials know it,” said Feldman. “With this case, we seek to ensure that the public is not misled by false advertising and product labeling in the marketplace. It is a critical step toward ensuring that people are fully informed before purchasing toxic products that can poison them, their families and the communities where they live.”
Ronnie Cummins, international director of OCA, said newer studies indicate glyphosate may be carcinogenic and its use may harm cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous and reproductive systems.
Yet, Cummins said, “no reasonable consumer seeing the claim on this product that glyphosate targets an enzyme not found ‘in people or pets’ would expect that Roundup actually targets an important bacterial enzyme found in humans and animals.”
Monsanto trying to hide the truth
There are thousands of personal-injury cases pending against Monsanto, in addition to the false advertising suits.
There also are multiple suits brought by consumer advocacy groups, farm associations and environmental organizations.
Wisner said the suits against Monsanto have uncovered decades of corporate malfeasance, of wrongful conduct by Monsanto.
He raised this question: If glyphosate doesn’t affect people, why did Monsanto seek a patent for antimicrobial properties that referred to the chemical’s effect on the enzyme? The patent was requested in 2003 and granted in 2010.
“At the end of the day, we get a label changed,” he said. “And consumers are told this does affect humans. … This stuff is not table salt. You can’t take a bath in it.”
Monsanto has maintained that hundreds of studies show glyphosate is safe.
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says glyphosate is safe for humans when used in accordance with label directions.
Madison ‘ideal location for a trial’
The lead plaintiff in the Wisconsin case is Thomas Blitz, of Waunakee. On multiple occasions, Blitz purchased Roundup at a Home Depot and the lawsuit says product labeling misled him.
The five other plaintiffs named in the case — Kevin Blair from Illinois, Gregory Chick from California, Mario Washington from New York state, Terence Moore from New Jersey, and Richard Dulniak from Florida — also say they were misled.
The plaintiffs do not claim they are sick, but say they were duped into buying a product that could make them sick — or make family or pets sick.
“Monsanto omits material, contrary information — namely, that human gut bacteria produce and utilize the enzyme targeted by Roundup,” the complaint states.
It also states, “Because of the false statements and material omissions, defendants were able to sell more Roundup products and were able to charge more for Roundup than they otherwise would have been.”
Monsanto was unjustly enriched, the plaintiffs argue, and its actions violate Wisconsin’s Trade Practices Act, as well as consumer laws in other states.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for themselves and class members equal to what they paid for Roundup products, items such as Roundup Garden Weeds Weed and Grass Killer.
Madison, Wisner said, is an ideal location for a trial.
"We like the jurisdiction," he said. "We think Madison is a good jury pool. We're looking for a court that moves quickly. And we like the law in the 7th Circuit.