On August 9, 2018, a jury in San Francisco awarded 289 million dollars to Mr. DeWayne Johnson, a school grounds keeper, as a result of a suit he and his family filed against Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto makes a product called Roundup, which contains a chemical called glyphosate. Johnson regularly used Roundupte to spray fields when he was at work, and contracted a case of incurable non-Hodgkin lymphoma while doing so. He suspected that Roundup was the culprit, and sued Monsanto.
In her statement to the court after the verdict, Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos said that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud, and should be punished for its conduct.”
As it happens, I played a minor and very unimportant role in this trial, but one that, given the verdict, was justified.
A month and a half ago, I was in the pool of San Francisco citizens called to the court for the jury selection process for this trail. Jury selection required three full days, no doubt because of the importance to both parties of the trial itself. I witnessed the first two days of selection and, as always, was fascinated by the process. I feel that the justice system as designed by the Founding Fathers and properly employed by courts and juries is part of the life’s blood of the U.S. democracy. It doesn’t always work perfectly (the fate of black people during slavery being one signal example of its failure, the misuse of the jury system in Jim Crow states after the end of the Civil War being another.) But the idea and its strict enforcement in the U.S. is a consummation be wished, and one that is usually achieved.
So I never complain when asked to participate in the system as a potential juror.
In this case, the two teams of attorneys asked a half dozen important questions each, of each of the prospective jurors. For example, “Do you think, sir, that you can fairly judge the facts of this particular case without bringing prejudicial knowledge of or opinions about Monsanto Corporation’s business in the invention and making of chemicals?” Or, “Do you think, Ma’am, that there are too many frivolous suits brought against corporations in product liability cases?”
The questions from the attorneys were justified in view of the need for fair decision-making on the part of jurors. I was surprised, though, by how many of the jurors, especially those who were eventually selected, answered these questions with bland agreement with the premises of the questions themselves. Just as often, there was a shrug of the shoulders and a kind of “Well, I suppose so” easy acquiescence to what was being asked. I thought that, because this trial was clearly going to be a major one, with very large stakes for both parties, there would be more questioning or active involvement on the part of the prospective jurors.
That was not to be, which for me made the process, especially through the second day, surprising and, finally, boring. “Don’t these people care?” I thought to myself. I myself had a few thoughts, the responses to which by both parties would truly clarify whether I would feel qualified to be on this jury.
I was brought to the chair for questioning on the morning of the third day. The official jury had been seated, and those of us still to be questioned would be alternative jurors, if selected. An attorney for the plaintiff asked me two questions in rapid succession, which had to do with my occasional profession as a journalist. “Do you agree that it’s the journalist’s obligation to be fair in seeking the truth? Is this your sense of the profession and what it requires?” I answered that I felt it was. This attorney had no more questions for me.
The attorney for Monsanto than asked me the question about whether I could listen to the evidence being presented by both parties in a fair and impartial way. I replied that I did not think I could, and she asked why that was so.
I thought about it, and then offered the following: “I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam war. I did not participate in that war, but I did witness it. I knew at the time about the deadly Agent Orange chemicals that were intended to defoliate Vietnamese jungles, in order to make it easier for American allied troops to do battle against the enemy. Of course, Monsanto was the manufacturer of Agent Orange.” I then mentioned Monsanto’s denials after the war of the dangers of Agent Orange chemicals to the lives of allied soldiers and Vietnamese non-combatants, denials that were proven false in courts of law.
That was the entirety of my response. I was not on a soapbox. My answer did not come with the strident tone of voice that often accompanies political motivation. It was simply a statement of proven truth.
My response caused a sensation in the courtroom, a combination of gasps and laughter.
The Monsanto attorney, surprised, flustered, and perhaps embarrassed, asked no more questions of me. When the judge asked the attorneys for any of the still potential jurors to be peremptorily excused, I was the first to go…quickly… at the request of the Monsanto team.
I had assumed that day that any juror would know of this history of Monsanto and Vietnam. But it has been more than forty years since the end of that war in 1975, and I think that at least half of the jurors selected for the trial were born after the end of the conflict. So perhaps I was explaining something of which most of them were unaware. No wonder that this morsel of truth was so difficult to accept by the Monsanto team. Knowledge of the truth of Agent Orange’s effects on human health would be, they assumed, prejudicial to their case.
My fate as a prospective juror notwithstanding, the jury that was selected clearly made the right choice in this matter. The system worked, and justice was done.
Here is an account of the trial.