In France, Monsanto Faces Off With Another Farmer Over Herbicide

(Bloomberg) -- Months after a U.S. court ruled that Roundup contributed to a school groundskeeper’s cancer, Monsanto is in a French court to face off with a farmer who claims he was poisoned by a different herbicide produced by the Bayer AG unit.

A lawyer for Paul Francois argued in a Lyon court Wednesday that Monsanto is responsible for illnesses the farmer suffered after 2004, when he inadvertently breathed in a weedkiller called Lasso. The product has been banned in France since 2007. Monsanto denies any responsibility and denies there is any proof that Lasso was harmful to Francois.

“Francois should have died that day,” the man’s lawyer, Francois Lafforgue, told the court. The herbicide had “nothing indicating the need to wear a mask, nothing about the secondary risks in case of inadvertent inhalation.”

While it’s Monsanto’s other, more-famous Roundup weedkiller that has been a thorn in Bayer’s side since the $63 billion acquisition last year, the French court case may compound the company’s legal woes as pressure mounts throughout the world.

Francois said he lost consciousness several times, spit up blood and suffered serious headaches after breathing in the weedkiller.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Bayer said it won’t comment about the legal case, but said the use of the approved products “doesn’t present risks for human health when they are used in the conditions specified as part of the marketing authorization.”

Legal Case

Francois’s case has been going on for more than a decade. Monsanto was initially found liable in 2012 and again on appeal but in 2017, France’s top court ordered a re-examination at a lower level. It said judges should have considered whether European Union rules on defective goods -- rather than French law -- apply to this dispute.

Lafforgue said that EU rules can apply, and that Monsanto should be found responsible under EU laws and French statutes. The lawyer accused Monsanto of failing to properly list possible risks and remaining secretive about the herbicide’s components, which he described as a highly toxic cocktail.

Jean-Daniel Bretzner, a lawyer for Monsanto, had a different take. He said that in a book Francois wrote about his feud with the company, “he says very clearly that he knew these were dangerous products.”

Francois’s Book

“He also says in his book that he was negligent on the day,” Bretzner told the press at the end of the hearing. “It’s not Monsanto saying this, it’s Paul Francois. He wasn’t obliged to publish a book.”

The two defense teams had a public dispute Wednesday over the credibility of experts responsible for assessing Francois’s health problems.

Bretzner said they had concluded that the illnesses Francois claims to have suffered from don’t exist. Lafforgue hit back in court, saying that the experts are in fact “consultants paid by Monsanto,” including a doctor who is a member of a pesticide lobby.

At the end of the hearing, Bretzner raised the issue again with reporters, and said the experts were chosen by a Lyon court.

“Their independence can’t be questioned,” he said.

1 Million Euros

Lafforgue said ahead of the hearing that Francois is planning to seek more than 1 million euros ($1.14 million) in damages, but was unable to present his arguments Wednesday because of procedural concerns.

In addition to the $78.6 million award Bayer must pay the U.S. groundskeeper, the company faces lawsuits from more than 9,300 other plaintiffs, government plans in Germany to retreat from the controversial glyphosate chemical and a court order in France that pulled a clearance for Roundup.

After enduring more than a decade of proceedings, Francois said he was “shocked” by Monsanto’s denial but remains hopeful about the outcome.

“We’ll have to wait until April 11,” when the Lyon judges plan to release their ruling, the Frenchman said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.