A former school groundskeeper, diagnosed with terminal cancer, told a San Francisco jury Monday that he called a Monsanto Co. hotline twice — once before his diagnosis, once after — and asked whether the herbicide he was spraying on the job, the most widely used weed killer in the world, could cause harm to humans.
Both times, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson said, the person at the other end of the line listened to his account of being accidentally doused with the herbicide glyphosate, and said someone would call him back. No one ever did.
“I would never have sprayed the product around school grounds or around people if I thought it would cause them harm,” Johnson told a Superior Court jury hearing his suit against Monsanto. “They deserve better.”
Johnson, 46, of Vallejo, was a groundskeeper and pest-control manager for the Benicia Unified School District from 2012 until May 2016. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in October 2014 and with what his lawyers described as a more aggressive form of the cancer in March 2015.
Even after the latter diagnosis, Johnson said he continued to spray Monsanto’s product, a high-concentration brand of glyphosate called Ranger Pro, until he became convinced that it was dangerous and refused to use it in his final months on the job.
His damage suit, now into its third week, is the first of about 4,000 nationwide to go to trial against Monsanto, now a subsidiary of Bayer. The company markets glyphosate, the world’s leading herbicide, as Roundup, and in higher concentrations, as Ranger Pro. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Monsanto disputes the assessment, noting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has never classified glyphosate as a carcinogen or restricted its use. The company’s lawyers also said Johnson’s primary treating physicians have not determined the cause of his cancer.
Earlier Monday, his wife and a physician described Johnson’s deteriorating condition, although he did not appear frail on the witness stand, speaking calmly in a deep, resonant voice. But jurors saw photos of the painful welts and lesions — on his legs, arms, face, and even his eyelids — that have arisen while he undergoes radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Johnson is scheduled for another round of chemotherapy next month and said he would next turn to a bone-marrow transplant.
He has self-published two books and is working on a third — “about people and how they’re judged by their faces” — and hopes he’ll get to finish it. He tries to shield the couple’s two sons, aged 13 and 10, from his bouts of depression and tears, and said that despite a grim prognosis, “I’ll keep fighting till my last breath.”
Araceli Johnson, his wife of 13 years and a nurse practitioner, said she now works 14 hours a day at two jobs to support them. “My world shut down” when her husband told her he had cancer, she told the jury.
Johnson started working for the Benicia schools as a delivery driver but then applied to become the district’s first pest-control manager and passed a licensing exam. “I liked the job a lot,” he said, recalling how some students gave him a poster for ridding their school of a skunk.
He said the district told him to use the Ranger Pro form of glyphosate because Roundup wasn’t strong enough to remove all the weeds from hillsides on district-owned property. A supervisor told him the product was safe as long as he wore long-sleeved shirts, pants, shoes and socks.
In addition, Johnson said, he wore a sturdy jacket, rubber gloves, goggles and a face mask while he mixed the herbicide with water in 50-gallon drums and sprayed it 20 to 30 times a year for two to three hours a day, mostly during summer months. But he said he couldn’t fully protect his face from wind-blown spray. And twice, he said, he got drenched with herbicide, once when a spray hose became detached from a truck that was hauling it, and another time when the chemical somehow leaked onto his back. He said he had no access to a shower until much later in the day.
It was after the first exposure, Johnson said, that he started noticing rashes on his skin and called the company hotline.
“I had this uncontrollable situation on my skin, which used to be as perfect as this table,” he said, pointing to the brown witness stand. “It was a very scary, confusing time.”
During cross-examination, Monsanto lawyer Sandra Edwards asked Johnson about his past statement to his doctors that he had first developed a skin rash in the autumn of 2013, before he was accidentally doused with glyphosate. The company has contended that the sequence of events suggests other causes for Johnson’s illness.
“It’s hard to remember all that way back,” said Johnson, whose wife testified that her husband has sometimes suffered memory lapses since his diagnosis. That appeared to be on display early in his testimony Monday, when he said he had stopped working for the school district about five years ago, then was shown a document noting that he had worked there until May 2016.
Jurors also heard from Dr. Ope Ofodile, a dermatologist who coordinated Johnson’s medical treatment at Kaiser Health Care in Vallejo from 2014 through mid-2016. She said she saw him more than 25 times, removed one of his lesions, administered radiation, and wrote a letter in 2015 asking the school board not to expose Johnson to airborne chemicals.
“He was not responding (to treatment). He was heading in the wrong direction,” she said. But “he was very much motivated to get better.”
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org