Within the span of just three months, the Monsanto Company lost two billion-dollar lawsuits. One jury in Philadelphia kicked off 2024 with a $2.25 billion judgement against Monsanto (and its parent company, Bayer) regarding the company’s Roundup weed killer. Two months before that ruling, Monsanto lost $1.56 billion in a Missouri Roundup trial, and it is appealing a $332 million judgment from California, according to Law360. 

In total, Bayer has paid more than $10 billion in settlements to those claiming that Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s just one problem—the preponderance of evidence shows that the chief ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, does not cause cancer when used appropriately at the recommended exposure levels. 

In an independent critical scientific review of the existing literature studying the health risks of glyphosate exposure, funded by the Center for Truth in Science, a panel of six senior scientists expressed low confidence that any of the studies demonstrated a causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

This is one of the most comprehensive analyses of existing research on the topic to date, and the findings support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to permit the continued use of glyphosate without a cancer warning label.

In a statement, the EPA wrote:

“EPA will no longer approve product labels claiming glyphosate is known to cause cancer – a false claim that does not meet the labeling requirements of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).”

“… EPA found – as it has before – that glyphosate is not a carcinogen, and there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label. These scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by many other countries and other federal agencies.”

Why is the EPA’s conclusion about glyphosate ignored by judges and juries? How can they rule that a company failed to warn consumers about a supposed product hazard, when there is no evidence that the hazard exists in the first place? 

Right now, there is a disconnect between facts in the research lab and claims in the courtroom, and that disconnect allows advocates on both sides of a case to cherry-pick claims that support their arguments, without putting them into the appropriate scientific context. 

In the case of glyphosate, the controversy began in 2015, when IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) classified the chemical as “probably carcinogenic.” That classification, and the integrity of methods used by IARC to make such a claim, have been contested by many national and international agencies:

  • The WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization determined that glyphosate is unlikely to be a carcinogen
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that glyphosate does not pose a serious health risk and is not likely to cause cancer in humans, and recently took action to allow for the continued use of glyphosate without a cancer warning label
  • The European Food Safety Authority also determined that glyphosate is unlikely to be a carcinogen
  • More than 800 studies have been conducted over the last 40 years to determine the safety of glyphosate products, along with several meta-analyses and systematic reviews published in peer-reviewed journals to examine the quality of the data

When IARC’s claim (and methods) are put in the context of the entire body of existing scientific research on glyphosate use, there is clearly no evidence of a relationship between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and glyphosate is likely to be safe when used as directed. Yet, the jury in Philadelphia ordered Monsanto to pay $2.25 billion anyway.

To make matters even more curious, the law firm representing the plaintiff claims the verdict in Philadelphia was likely impacted by having a highly educated jury. “Six college-educated jurors, two had master’s degrees, and the foreperson of the jury was a multidecade institutional librarian,” a representative of the firm told Law360. 

One has to wonder, what is getting lost in translation between the research laboratory and the courtroom? It’s hard to know what the defense is doing wrong, in terms of communicating the science. It’s possible that they aren’t doing anything wrong—jurors might be arriving with pre-existing opinions on topics after watching biased media coverage and plaintiff recruitment ads. 

Philadelphia, in particular, has a reputation as a destination city for tort lawyers seeking high-dollar awards. The American Tort Reform Foundation publishes an annual report highlighting what they term as “Judicial Hellholes” and Philadelphia ranks #2 on the list.

Even so, the reality of the situation is this: Bayer is paying billions of dollars because courts are determining the company was “negligent” in not warning about the chance of cancer, while no evidence establishes a link to cancer and the EPA does not require warning labels.  

The disconnect between the facts and the outcome of the case is so egregious, it may be worth re-examining the process by which evidence can be admitted into court and used. 

Right now, scientific studies are almost never admissible in their full forms. Instead, research gets admitted into evidence through the testimony of an expert witness. The studies might be marked as exhibits, but they usually won’t be evidence themselves, which means they do not go out with the jury to deliberate. 

Not having the full document in the hands of the jury allows witnesses to share only the parts of a study that strengthen or weaken a legal argument. So, they twist and distort the research and the jury has to take them at their word. 

After all, judges are experts in the law but not science—and most jurors are experts in neither. It’s unfair to expect them to be able to identify bad actors who misuse the science. We need to give them better tools.