Carey Gillam's new book is out
“An authoritative takedown of a corporation that evidently cares little for public health.” — Kirkus
When global conglomerate Bayer AG paid $63 billion in 2018 to buy Monsanto Company, the deal was seen as a boost to Bayer’s wealth and power. But only two years later, Bayer was forced to agree to pay $11 billion to settle the claims of more than 100,000 cancer victims who alleged their suffering was caused by the use of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, Roundup. That settlement may never have happened without Lee Johnson.
The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice (publication date: March 2, 2021) tells the inside story of Lee Johnson’s landmark lawsuit against Monsanto after a workplace accident left Lee doused in Monsanto’s herbicide and facing a deadly cancer. Lee was the first to take Monsanto to trial, drawing attention from around the world as his case became one of the most dramatic legal battles in courthouse history.
For Lee, the case was a race against the clock as doctors predicted he wouldn’t survive long enough to take the witness stand. For the eclectic band of ambitious lawyers representing him, taking on Monsanto was a matter of professional pride and personal risk that placed millions of dollars and hard-earned reputations on the line. For observers, Johnson’s battle brought to light decades of deceptive conduct by Monsanto and regulators with worldwide public health implications.
Written by award-winning investigative journalist Carey Gillam, The Monsanto Papers is the explosive follow-up to Whitewash, Gillam’s “hard-hitting,” (Kirkus) “must-read” (Booklist) exposé on Monsanto and the health risks of the widely used Roundup. Readers of The Monsanto Papers will be astounded by how far the company was willing to go to hide those dangers.
The book not only offers a revelatory look at corporate misdeeds, but also delves into the sometimes controversial tactics employed by mass tort attorneys trying to bring corporations such as Monsanto to justice. At the heart of the story, however, is the searing tale of Lee’s tormented battle to survive long enough to see his day in court.
Gillam’s reporting is based on behind-the-scenes access to Lee and his lawyers, along with more than 80,000 pages of court exhibits and other documents. The Monsanto Papers brings to life both Lee’s ravaging bout with cancer, the risks his legal team took to undercover the truth, and the risk faced by consumers everywhere when corporations put profits over people.
Carey Gillam has spent more than 25 years reporting on corporate America. Her first book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, won the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and was named an “Outstanding Book of the Year” by the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Gillam is currently Research Director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know.
The Monsanto Papers
Island Press Hardcover
Publication Date: March 2, 2021
ISBN: 9781642830569 (C) / 9781642830576 (E)
Book page: https://islandpress.org/books/monsanto-papers
Also available from Amazon and other booksellers.
QUESTION AND ANSWER
The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice
By Carey Gillam
Q Your first book, Whitewash, was a “hard-hitting” (Kirkus) exposé on Monsanto and the health risks of its best-selling herbicide, Roundup. How does The Monsanto Papers follow- up on that story?
A Whitewash was a book about the science and the company’s deception about the dangers its products pose. The Monsanto Papers is the very tragic human story about the results of that deception. This new book takes readers into the personal and painful struggle of Lee Johnson—an average middle-aged husband and father — as he sees his life unravel due to his terminal cancer diagnosis and tries to prepare his wife and two children for his death. The book also explores the fascinating — and controversial — tactics of the mass tort attorneys who decide to help Lee, and thousands of others like him, take Monsanto to court.
Q The Monsanto Papers tells the inside story of Lee Johnson’s 2018 lawsuit and trial against Monsanto. Why was this such a landmark case?
A Lee became the first person in the world to go to trial against Monsanto to prove that the company’s 40-year-old, wildly popular weed killer causes a type of cancer called non- Hodgkin lymphoma. Though many scientists for years had pointed to evidence tying Monsanto’s herbicide to cancer, the company had always been successful in convincing regulators and customers that such evidence was invalid. Few onlookers thought Lee and his lawyers could actually win at trial against the powerful and highly influential Monsanto. But people around the world wanted to see the evidence, and the case ended up being covered by media from around the world.
Q What importance does the case have today? Have there been any new developments?
A After Lee’s victory, many more cancer sufferers filed their own claims and two more trials led to verdicts against Monsanto totaling more than $2 billion. Those judgments were ultimately reduced on appeal but the jury findings that Monsanto’s products can cause cancer stood. That has triggered calls for bans or restrictions on the weed killer products in numerous countries, including in many cities around the United States. Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, suffered a huge loss of investor confidence and almost half of its market capitalization after Lee’s courtroom win. Additionally, the company was forced to agree to pay $11 billion to try to settle claims similar to Lee’s brought by more than 100,000 others alleging exposure to the company’s weed killers caused their cancers.
Q The book describes Lee’s lawyers leaking evidence to a journalist. You were that journalist. Did you have any concerns about publishing the documents? Why did you decide it was important for the public to see those documents?
A I had no concerns about publishing the documents at all. Corporations peddling products to millions of people around the world have a moral obligation to be truthful about the safety of those products, and I knew the internal company records would help people understand what actually was true and not true in this case. I did rush to get the documents downloaded and posted on a public website before dawn broke because I feared Monsanto might try to take court action against the law firm to force the firm to pull the documents from public view. Once I put them up, I was not going to take them down.
Q Your reporting is based on nearly unfettered access to Lee and his lawyers, and more than 80,000 pages of court exhibits and other documents. Did you discover anything in the course of that research that stands out or surprised you?
A Given my work writing Whitewash, I was already familiar with a lot of the evidence of corporate manipulation of the science, but the secrets that came to light when Monsanto had to turn over its internal emails to Lee’s lawyers were stunning. The Monsanto Papers takes readers into the law offices as the attorneys went through the company records for the first time, finding out about the company’s plot to kill a government toxicity review of its product about the fact that Monsanto never conducted studies to see if the products sold to consumers caused cancer and avoided or ignored numerous warning signs about product dangers to human health. The lengths the company went to in order to discredit and harass independent scientists was also quite stunning. And the fact that all this went on for decades made it so much more damning.
Q Lee’s lawyers are an eclectic bunch. Who stood out to you, either as key to winning the case or simply as a fascinating personality?
A Each of the lawyers involved in this litigation have been fascinating characters to study. Mike Miller is a big personality: someone who has built a career taking huge financial risks in order to hold companies to account for harmful products and someone who pursues dare-devil risky hobbies in his spare time. In contrast, when I first met Brent Wisner, I had the sense that this young lawyer was still “wet-behind-the-ears,” or very inexperienced. And he was. But he was extremely talented in the law and in theatrics — as a child growing up not too far from Hollywood, he was involved in acting, and it really showed in the courtroom. He knew just how to move, how to modulate his voice and his mannerisms to really bond with the jury. And Dave Dickens, Dave was the calm in the eye of the storm. A mild-mannered, quiet type, but cut-throat in his courtroom tactics.
Q After having covered the trial so closely, how do you see the court system differently? Are legal cases the best way to hold corrupt companies accountable?
A Watching this all unfold from beginning to end was very eye-opening for me and left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I saw clearly that some plaintiffs’ attorneys around the nation seemed more interested in the money that potentially could be won than in actually working very hard to help individual plaintiffs struggling with cancer. On the other hand, I also saw that these large mass tort cases take a huge toll on the lawyers who actually lead them and do the work necessary to bring corporations to account through trials. Many of the lawyers in the Roundup litigation, for instance, faced incredible personal financial risk and spent months away from their families to put the cases together; at least two marriages were lost in the process. In large mass torts, these lawyers can — and often do — wind up with nothing to show for all the work and money spent. It’s a real gamble on their part, and it’s an imperfect system for sure. But when regulators don’t do their jobs, and lawmakers are captured by these corporations and their lobbyists, we consumers have almost nowhere else to turn.
Q What do you hope readers take away from The Monsanto Papers?
A I hope readers are moved by Lee’s personal journey and motivated to understand that this story of one man and one company is really just a microcosmic example of a pressing need for greater protection of public health from the dangers of powerful corporations that put profits before people.