Oct. 18, 2019 – Los Angeles, California – – Pedram Esfandiary, an attorney from the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, was recently honored in Law360’s Rising Stars as a top product liability attorney under the age of 40.
Pedram received this honor for his work on three of the first Monsanto Roundup weed killer cases to proceed to trial. The plaintiffs in these cases alleged exposure to Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto refused to warn consumers despite knowing for decades that Roundup causes cancer.
The juries in all three cases awarded the plaintiffs a total of 2.424 billion in damages (the judges in all three cases later reduced the jury verdicts). The third case, Pilliod et al. v. Monsanto Co., resulted in the ninth-largest personal injury jury verdict in U.S. history.
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District in Northern California. Between 2012 and 2015, part of Mr. Johnson’s job was to apply Monsanto herbicides to school properties.
In 2014, Lee experienced severe skin irritation. He sought the help of health care providers and contacted Monsanto to see if his skin irritation could have been caused by his use of Roundup. Internal Monsanto emails obtained in discovery showed that Lee’s questions concerning Roundup were discussed among company employees, but the company never responded to him. As such, Lee continued to use Roundup.
As his condition grew worse, Lee filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in 2016. Roughly two years later his case was the first Monsanto Roundup lawsuit to proceed to trial.
During the trial, Pedram conducted oral arguments, evidentiary hearings, preparation of experts for testimony, preparing video depositions to be played at trial, drafting and arguing trial briefs, drafting oppositions to directed verdict, nonsuit and JNOV (judgment notwithstanding the verdict) briefs.
After five weeks of trial proceedings, the jury found that exposure to Monsanto herbicides caused Mr. Johnson’s NHL, and that Monsanto failed to warn consumers of this severe health hazard. The jury awarded Mr. Johnson $39.25 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages ($289.25 million), the second-highest jury verdict in California in 2018 and the third highest in the nation. The judge overseeing the case later reduced the punitive damages to $39.25 million, bringing the total verdict down to $78.5 million.
“I’m extremely proud and happy to have represented Lee,” Pedram told Law360. “We got to know Lee and his family extremely well. We still maintain contact to this day, and I consider him a friend. He fought tremendously to prevail here.”
Edwin Hardeman v. Monsanto Co. was the first federal Roundup cancer lawsuit to proceed to trial before U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria (Johnson v. Monsanto Co. was a California state court case). The trial was the first bellwether case for more than 1,600 other plaintiffs with lawsuits consolidated in the federal Monsanto Roundup multidistrict litigation (MDL).
Hardeman, 70, and his wife spent years living in Sonoma County, California, on 56 acres of land. He used Monsanto herbicides to treat poison oak, overgrowth, and weeds on his property in 1986 and continued using Roundup through 2012. Mr. Hardeman was diagnosed with B-cell NHL in February of 2015, about a month before the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, as a “probable human carcinogen.”
In Hardeman, Pedram again served on the trial team, examining two witnesses that testified via video deposition.
On March 27, 2019, the jury awarded Mr. Hardeman $80 million, finding that exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Following the verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria issued an order of mediation to seek a settlement between Bayer (which acquired Monsanto in 2018) and more than 13,400 plaintiffs with Monsanto Roundup lawsuits pending in federal and state courts.
Pilliod et al. v. Monsanto Co. was the third Monsanto Roundup lawsuit to proceed to trial. Alva and Alberta Pilliod, a couple in their 70s, alleged exposure to Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Alva and Alberta Pilliod, a California couple in their 70s, used Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer for more than 30 years to landscape around their home and other properties. Both were diagnosed with the same type of NHL, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).
In 2011, Alva was diagnosed with systemic NHL in many of his bones, which spread to his pelvis and spine. Alberta was diagnosed with NHL brain cancer in 2015. The couple filed suit against Monsanto in 2018.
Pedram assisted with working up the Pilliod case for trial (depos, pre-trial briefs, etc.), conducted trial oral arguments, evidentiary hearings, and preparation of experts for trial testimony, examined two witnesses that testified via video deposition, prepared video depositions to be played at trial, drafted and argued trial briefs, and drafted oppositions to directed verdict, nonsuit and JNOV briefs.
In May of 2019, after seven weeks of trial proceedings, the jury returned a verdict of $2.055 billion in favor of the Pilliods, finding that exposure to Roundup caused their cancer, and that Monsanto failed to warn consumers of this severe health hazard. The jury also found that Monsanto acted with malice, oppression, or fraud and should be punished for its conduct.
The verdict in Pilliod was a hard-earned victory that will have a lasting impact not just for the plaintiffs and their family, but for the plaintiffs’ community, public health, and the environment. As of this writing, it is also the largest jury verdict in the United States this year.
Comment to California EPA Regarding Roundup Labeling
Pedram’s work in the Monsanto Roundup litigation began years ago, well before any of the trials. In March of 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) determined glyphosate would be added to California’s Prop 65 list as a chemical known to cause cancer. OEHHA also proposed a No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) for glyphosate of 1,100 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, determining that exposures below that level would be given “Safe Harbor” and thus exempt from the warning requirement.
When the agency asked the public for comment on the proposed NSRL, Pedram and his colleagues wrote to OEHHA on Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman’s behalf, requesting the agency to carefully consider the science behind Roundup and glyphosate before imposing “a potentially unsafe Safe Harbor NSRL.”
“The known dangers of glyphosate warrant extensive investigation before Californians are exposed to any amount, as recognized by the judicious decision to list glyphosate under Proposition 65,” Pedram wrote in the comment to OEHHA. “There are numerous explicit health concerns associated with glyphosate that render it inappropriate for a consumer to be deprived of the opportunity to exercise informed choice when contemplating purchasing and using this product, or a product containing glyphosate. A label warning would thus ensure the presence of a modest protective moat before the gates of public health.”
Commitment to Public Health and Consumer Safety
While Pedram is understandably proud of the work that went into winning the cases for the clients, he is also cites his consumer safety advocacy work as a major source of pride. In addition to litigating the cases against Monsanto, Pedram and his colleagues worked to declassify and publish multiple internal Monsanto documents that are now known as the “Monsanto Papers.” These documents, obtained via discovery, allow people to see what is happening behind the curtain of secrecy that normally shrouds ongoing litigation.
The Monsanto Papers have been the subject of major investigative journalism pieces in the U.S. and around the world. Magnified by the verdicts in the first three Roundup trials, the Monsanto Papers have changed the approval of Roundup use in Europe and led to legislative investigations worldwide.