By Neil Young and Daryl Hannah
Updated: Oct. 14, 2018 11:12 a.m.
As originally posted in the San Francisco Chronicle
We were among the millions of citizens who felt a surge of optimism that justice might actually prevail on Aug. 10 when a San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded a historic $289 million verdict against the agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto.
On Wednesday, we learned that a California judge is considering taking away that jury award for punitive damages.
When we learned that Dewayne “Lee” Johnson had taken Monsanto to court saying he got his terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from on-the-job exposure to Monsanto’s ubiquitous weed killer, Roundup, we were so captured by Johnson’s battle that we traveled to San Francisco to watch the trial. Would democracy finally prevail? Or would Monsanto again find a way to subvert the justice system?
Johnson’s was the first of some 4,000 similar claims headed for courts across America.
Initially, we were discouraged because the judge appeared to be bending over backward to help Monsanto. California Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos carefully screened the jury pool to exclude all individuals who had been exposed to negative articles about Monsanto, or who had shown the least disapproval of the company. She unseated 35 jurors in all, including many who said that they could be fair and impartial. The 12 who issued the verdict were those who showed no predisposition against Monsanto.
During trial, Judge Bolanos consistently sided with Monsanto on the company’s evidentiary objections. At Monsanto’s request, Judge Bolanos deemed any mention of Monsanto’s genetically modified crops off-limits during the trial. Judge Bolanos forbade Johnson’s lawyer from showing the jury Monsanto’s internal studies showing that Roundup caused kidney tumors in mice; that the chemical easily penetrates the body through the skin; and that Monsanto had a flimflam system in place for killing unfavorable scientific studies by independent and government scientists. Judge Bolanos even gave a “curative instruction” telling the jury that Monsanto had never manufactured Agent Orange. That statement was simply not true — however the judge deemed the instruction necessary to neutralize potential bias from statements made about Agent Orange by dismissed jurors in front of their fellow jurymen.
Despite those restrictions, Johnson’s jury heard evidence that, for four decades, Monsanto maneuvered to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists, ghostwriting science and engaging in scientific fraud. The jury found that these activities constituted “malice, fraud and oppression” warranting $250 million in punitive damages.
We were among the many who applauded the verdict as a triumph for democracy.
However, California judges have the power to reduce, or even eliminate, a jury award under a rule intended to restrain runaway juries who arrive at verdicts driven by passion or prejudice.
Judge Bolanos purposefully selected the Monsanto jurors because of their lack of prejudice. At the trial, we saw a jury that seemed curious, intensely attentive and calmly deliberative. The jury was highly educated and took copious notes. Michael Baum, an attorney for the plaintiff, “I’ve never seen a jury so diligent.” The jurors would be shocked to know that the product of their weeks of careful consideration, and three days of deliberation, could be thrown out at the whim of a judge who disagrees with the verdict.
These hard-working Americans, gave up their jobs, businesses and families for two months to perform their civic duty as jurors. If a judge intervenes to alter their verdict, then what, after all, is the point of having jurors?
The task of disrupting a 50,000-year-old agricultural industry — transferring it from labor intensive and organic to chemical intensive — has required Monsanto to subvert democracy, and the company has a reputation for somehow manipulating public officials, regulators and courts — and an uncanny record of winning lawsuits.
All of us should be concerned. At this time in history when our democratic institutions are under assault by corporate power, such an action will send a signal to Americans that their service on a jury is meaningless and that corporations like Monsanto are above the law.
Neil Young, the Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and musician, and actress Daryl Hannah, who married in July, have both long advocated for environmental causes.