Timothy Litzenburg, a University of Richmond law school graduate, recently won the first case against the Monsanto agricultural company arguing that its Roundup weed killer — the most popular weed killer in the world — causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

On top of this unprecedented victory, Litzenburg also helped his client receive $289 million in damages from Monsanto. This case has been considered monumental by lawyers and scientists alike and may have major implications for the future sale of Roundup. 

Litzenburg, who graduated from the T.C. Williams School of Law in 2008 , currently works for The Miller Firm LLC in Orange, Virginia. After two years of trying cases across five states in the Actos bladder cancer lawsuits, Litzenburg went on a search to see what public health concern his firm could tackle next, according to an article from the University of Richmond newsroom. Following further research and discussions with medical experts, The Miller Firm opened its doors to Roundup lawsuits, according to the article.

This summer, Litzenburg and the plaintiff, Dewayne Johnson, entered a San Francisco court room looking for justice. Johnson had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he argued that he had developed this disease from working with Roundup weed killer. As a groundskeeper for a San Francisco school district, Johnson used the product 20 to 30 times a year and also said he had been soaked with the chemical twice, according to a CNN article.  He is now covered in skin lesions and is sometimes too impaired to speak, according to the article.

After examining this ruling closely, Carl Tobias, a Williams professor of law at UR, said he was ultimately surprised by the jury verdict.

“What’s striking about this case, I think, is that the plaintiff and his lawyer were able to persuade the jury that Roundup had caused the plaintiff’s cancer,” Tobias said. “That’s the first case where a jury found that.” 

Litzenburg argued that Roundup had caused Johnson’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and also that Monsanto Co. had failed to inform consumers about the potential risk of using its product. With evidence from internal Monsanto documents, Litzenburg and Johnson’s other lawyers were able to convince the jury of the link between Roundup and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as demonstrate that Monsanto executives had known for decades that Roundup could cause cancer, one of Johnson’s lawyers, Brent Wisner, said in a statement, according to a recent article published by The Guardian. Johnson was ultimately awarded $250 million in punitive damages and $39 million in compensatory damages.

Professor Noah Sachs, director of the law school's Robert R. Merhige, Jr. Center for Environmental Studies, has been following the issue of whether the Roundup ingredient in question in the case, glyphosate, is a carcinogen since 2015, and he reviewed Litzenburg’s case extensively.

“I was surprised by the amount of both the compensatory and punitive damages because those are quite high, even by the standards of the American tort system,” Sachs said. “Those are really high verdicts for a single individual. But in the end, I think justice was done, and there’s going to be hundreds, if not thousands, more follow-on cases of plaintiffs bringing similar complaints.”  

Litzenburg and his firm currently have approximately 2,000 similar lawsuits against Monsanto, and Litzenburg described this case as "just the tip of the iceberg" in the article, according to UR's Newsroom article.

“This case is important because there are so many people that do feel like they’ve been injured by the product, and for them, hopefully it might be a path to some kind of relief,” Tobias said. "[Johnson] is a real pioneer.” 

Yet this win is only the first stage of an ongoing, ruthless battle. 

“Monsanto is going to fight it,” said Shannon Jones, the director of biological instruction at Richmond, who specializes in toxicology. “Monsanto is going to argue that, if used correctly, [Roundup is] safe.”

Sachs said he agreed with Jones and said Monsanto executives were unhappy with the jury’s decision. 

“They don’t want this verdict setting a precedent for all these hundreds or thousands of other cases,” Sachs said. “It’s a threat to the most profitable component of their business, so [Monsanto] will fight tooth and nail to try to prevent this verdict from ever being formalized into a judgment.”

The enzyme that Roundup weed killer targets is found only in plants, meaning the pesticide should not be toxic to humans, Jones said.

“It doesn’t technically target anything in people,” Jones added. 

She explained that by using the proper protective gear, such as gloves, goggles and long clothing, a person should receive no direct effects from the chemical. 

But because Johnson used it for a long period of time and was bathed in it, Jones said toxicity was inevitable. If someone inhales, ingests or is doused in Roundup, which would all be considered improper use of the product, then there would be noticeable effects, she said.  

There are few studies linking Roundup weed killer to cancer and even fewer long-term studies of Roundup's effects, Jones added. 

Monsanto executives have further argued that there have been numerous studies suggesting that Roundup does not cause cancer. 

"More than 800 scientific studies, the U.S. EPA, the National Institutes of Health and regulators around the world have concluded that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer," Scott Partridge, Monsanto's vice president of global strategy, is quoted as saying in a recent CNN article. "We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective and safe tool for farmers and others."

Jones said she was conflicted about the verdict. 

“On the one hand, this man is dying of cancer, and it’s a tragic story,” she said. “I do believe there is a link between his cancer and the chemical, but I can’t help but wonder if there was a way this could have been prevented with proper use of the chemical.”

But Jones said she recognized that this case had set a major precedent nonetheless. 

“The case is heavily publicized, and so I think it will make people nervous about using Roundup,” Sachs said. “If hundreds of thousands of cases do go forward and result in jury verdicts like this, then it could bankrupt the company. It could be that bad for Monsanto.” 

Tobias said he thought Litzenburg not only set a precedent by winning the case, but also by the creativity of how he did so.   

“We are proud that [Litzenburg's] our graduate," Tobias said. "It’s an incredible case that he’s won.”

Contact features editor Melanie Lippert at melanie.lippert@richmond.edu.