The following is an excerpt from The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, a new book by investigative journalist Carey Gillam. The book tells the story of Lee Johnson’s landmark lawsuit against Monsanto alleging the company’s popular weed killer causes cancer.
Join the Non-GMO Project July 13 at 4:00 p.m. PST on Facebook Live for our first Speaker Series featuring Carey, and enter to win a copy of The Monsanto Papers!
It was a winter day, and Aimee was ensconced in the firm’s cavernous conference room, poring over research about Monsanto and its long history as a purveyor of chemicals, when she saw a notice of Mike Miller’s first case filing, the Kennedy lawsuit he had brought in Missouri. The notice caught her by surprise; she had not expected The Miller Firm’s fast entry. Aimee’s friend and fellow mass tort attorney Robin Greenwald of the New York City firm Weitz & Luxenberg had just filed a similar case, and the two women had already agreed to join forces in what they expected would become a large Roundup MDL. Like Aimee, Robin was a highly regarded attorney—she was former assistant chief of the US Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section. Robin had honed her skills suing petroleum companies for environmental contamination, but she had no experience in the world of farm chemicals and pesticides.
Aimee knew Mike and Nancy Miller from crossing paths with them on medical device litigation, and she quickly gave Mike a call, explaining that she was planning to move for MDL status for the Roundup litigation and would like his firm to be part of the team she thought would be necessary to take on Monsanto. There was power in numbers, and even though Aimee had never litigated against Monsanto, she felt intuitively that it would take the top legal skills of many seasoned plaintiffs’ attorneys working in concert to win against the century-old company.
Roundup brought in roughly $4 billion a year in sales for Monsanto and was the linchpin to so-called Roundup Ready seeds, which the company had genetically engineered so that crops such as corn and soybeans would not die when hit with Monsanto’s herbicides, though any weeds threatening to crowd the crops would die. The special crops were a hit with farmers and amounted to many more billions of dollars in sales each year for Monsanto. Additionally, the company marketed its glyphosate-based weed killers to farmers to spray on non–genetically engineered crops such as wheat and oats shortly before harvest to help dry them out. Both practices were known to leave weed killer residues in the food made from the sprayed crops. If the public understood that Monsanto’s herbicide could cause cancer, regulators would be called upon to limit its use, and Monsanto’s herbicide and seed businesses could be decimated.
This was not just one product, Aimee realized. This was Monsanto’s billion-dollar baby, and she knew the company would do whatever it could to fight to keep it. “We are taking on their biggest product,” she told Mike. “We need to work together.”
Unaware of the strategy being plotted by Aimee, Mike, and Robin, Los Angeles attorney Michael Baum was doing his own research on the potential for Roundup litigation. But he wasn’t looking at cancer; he was looking at butterflies. There was mounting evidence that widespread Roundup use was contributing to a marked decline in the monarch butterfly population, and environmental scientists were warning that the monarch could disappear almost entirely by 2036. He wasn’t sure, but Michael thought there might be a lawsuit in the situation.
He did not really need a new case to chase. Michael was managing partner of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, a firm so large it sprawled across the ninth and tenth floors of a Wilshire Boulevard office building, and he was on the back side of a career that had brought him wealth as well as the respect of his peers in the plaintiffs’ bar. He was sixty-three, drove a Jaguar, and owned a home in the tony beach community of Malibu, and when he was not working he often could be found trying to balance his lean five-foot-eleven frame on a boogie board in the ocean. He liked to match dark business suits with colorful striped socks, and underneath the cuffs of his crisp white dress shirts Michael wore couplets of braided leather bracelets more commonly seen on surfers than on lawyers.
His office was a reflection of the fact that Michael was one part harried lawyer and one part aging hippie. Asian artwork, including a praying Buddha sculpture, was scattered among the furnishings, as were books and postcards from exotic travels. A faded leather sofa sat underneath floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a view of waving palm trees and a hint of the distant ocean. One entire wall of Michael’s office was covered with framed certificates of recognition, including a National Association of Distinguished Counsel certificate ranking Michael among the “Top One Percent” of members. Another touted both his legal skills and his ethics. A University of California law diploma, as well as his undergraduate English degree diploma, hung near a framed sign that read, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” A dartboard affixed to the back of his office door offered distraction from the stacks of legal files surrounding his long, black glass-topped desk.
Baum Hedlund’s focus was on representing people with personal injury and wrongful death claims, primarily stemming from pharmaceutical product dangers and commercial transportation accidents—aviation disasters were the firm’s specialty. Pesticide problems, such as Roundup’s danger to monarch butterflies, would be new territory for the firm, and it wasn’t clear who the plaintiffs would be. But Michael believed that practicing law came with a larger duty. He described his view to outsiders as striving to “make money delivering blows against the empire” in whatever form that came.
On the wall just outside his office hung a large framed quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In his quest to explore how his firm might help save the butterfly, Michael had been working closely with one of Baum Hedlund’s newest and youngest attorneys, Brent Wisner. Brent was the son of a longtime family friend and had been contemplating joining a corporate defense firm before Michael lured him to join the plaintiffs’ side instead.
Brent was barely thirty years old and still new to the profession after earning a law degree at Georgetown University and clerking for two years for a federal court judge in Hawaii. He had grown up in Topanga, a community situated in the Santa Monica Mountains between Los Angeles and Malibu, known as an enclave for a bohemian lifestyle and populated by artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Brent’s father was a screenwriter, and as a child Brent had tried his hand at acting, an experience that made him adept at working a courtroom much as if it were a stage. In Michael’s eyes, Brent was the epitome of the “Topangan” legend, someone who cared about more than personal success, who shared his desire to use the law in pursuit of the sort of justice that lived up to the Margaret Mead credo.
Neither Brent nor Michael was familiar with the details of Lee Johnson’s story, but they knew Mike had filed Lee’s lawsuit just a few hours’ drive north of them, in San Francisco, two months prior. Mike let Michael know he had a meeting with Monsanto’s lawyers coming up at the end of March. They should probably meet before then and start to craft a plan of attack. The ball was rolling, and there was no time to waste.
With Michael and Brent on the West Coast and Mike and Nancy and their team on the East Coast, it made the most sense to meet in the middle, so they all gathered in Denver at Aimee and Vance’s firm for two days of strategizing about who would take which depositions, how to coordinate and share document reviews, and how best to shepherd the several thousand potential cases they believed were inevitable. Aimee’s colleague Robin Greenwald flew in from New York to round out the group.
They were an unlikely and eclectic team—a combination of LA flash, New York sophistication, Southern stubbornness, and midwestern salt of the earth. None had any experience with the pesticide industry, and none had ever challenged Monsanto, a company known for its ruthlessness in legal matters.
But they all were standouts in the plaintiffs’ bar, and by joining forces they thought they had a good shot at winning enough cases to at least cover their costs and possibly secure damages for some of the many cancer victims, such as Lee Johnson, who believed their lives had been shortened because of Monsanto’s products. It remained to be seen if they had the skills, the brains, and—most important—the evidence to take on one of the world’s biggest chemical and seed corporations.
From The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice by Carey Gillam. Copyright © 2021 Carey Gillam.
Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. https://islandpress.org/books/monsanto-papers