U.S. trial tests claims Roundup weed killer caused cancer

By Jim Christie

(Reuters) – Bayer AG on Monday faced a second U.S. jury over allegations that its popular glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup causes cancer, six months after the company’s share price was rocked by a $289 million verdict in California state court.

The lawsuit by California resident Edwin Hardeman against the company began on Monday morning in federal rather than state court. The trial is also a test case for a larger litigation. More than 760 of the 9,300 Roundup cases nationwide are consolidated in the federal court in San Francisco that is hearing Hardeman’s case.

Bayer denies all allegations that Roundup or glyphosate cause cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, saying decades of independent studies have shown the world’s most widely used weed killer to be safe for human use and noting that regulators around the world have approved the product.

During the first phase in the trial, the nine-person jury is asked to weigh scientific evidence to determine whether Roundup caused Hardeman’s lymphoma.

Aimee Wagstaff, a lawyer for Hardeman, told a packed courtroom during her opening statement on Monday that chemicals in Roundup made the weed killer more toxic than glyphosate alone, causing the man’s cancer.

But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who presides over the federal litigation, repeatedly scolded her for “crossing the line” by referring to internal corporate communications the judge has said have no bearing on the science in the case.

“You completely disregarded the limitations,” Chhabria said.

In a January ruling, Chhabria called evidence by plaintiffs that the company allegedly attempted to influence regulators and manipulate public opinion “a distraction” from the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes cancer.

If the jury determines Roundup caused Hardeman’s cancer, the judge said such evidence could be presented in a second trial phase.

Plaintiffs criticized Chhabria’s order dividing the trial and restricting evidence as “unfair,” saying their scientific evidence allegedly showing glyphosate causes cancer is inextricably linked to Monsanto’s alleged wrongful conduct.

Evidence of corporate misconduct was seen as playing a key role in the finding by a California state court jury in August that Roundup caused another man’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that Bayer’s Monsanto unit failed to warn consumers about the weed killer’s cancer risks. That jury’s $289 million damages award was later reduced to $78 million.

Bayer’s share price dropped 10 percent following the verdict and has remained volatile.

Brian Stekloff, a lawyer for Bayer, in his opening statement attacked the idea of a link between Roundup and cancer. He noted U.S. rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have remained steady over time, even when Roundup use began to soar in the 1990s.

Hardeman began using the Roundup brand herbicide with glyphosate in the 1980s to control poison oak and weeds on his property and sprayed “large volumes” of the chemical for many years on a regular basis, according to court documents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 66 in February 2015 and filed his lawsuit a year later. Hardeman is currently in remission.

But Stekloff on Monday said Hardeman’s age and his history of chronic hepatitis C were known risk factors for developing lymphoma. The lawyer also said the majority of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma incidents are idiopathic, or have no known cause.

(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Writing by Tina Bellon; editing by Anthony Lin, Lisa Shumamker and Tom Brown)

Supreme Court blocks restrictive Louisiana abortion law

FILE PHOTO - An abortion rights activist holds up a sign as marchers take part in the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday stopped a Louisiana law imposing strict regulations on abortion clinics from going into effect in its first major test on abortion since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last summer.

The court on a 5-4 vote granted an emergency application by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women to block the Republican-backed law from going into effect while litigation continues.

The four liberal justices were joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, suggesting that Roberts, as Kennedy used to be, is now the key vote on the issue.

Kennedy backed abortion rights in two key cases. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who President Donald Trump appointed to replace Kennedy, joined the court’s four other conservatives in dissent.

Hope Medical Group challenged the law’s requirement that doctors who perform abortions must have an arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Kavanaugh, writing for himself, said it was not clear whether doctors would be unable to obtain the admitting privileges were the law to go into effect. He said that he would have favored allowing them to bring a later legal challenge if their efforts were unsuccessful.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion-rights group that represents the challengers, said the law could lead to the closure of two of the three abortion clinics operating in Louisiana, a state of more than 4.6 million people.

The law was passed in 2014 but courts had prevented it from going into effect. The Supreme Court itself blocked the law in 2016, two days after hearing another major case involving a similar Texas law that the justices struck down months later.

Kennedy, a conservative who retired in July 2018, had voted to preserve abortion rights in 1992 and again in the 2016 Texas case.

Roberts was a dissenter in the 2016 case, but his vote on Thursday, for now, suggests the court is not retreating from that precedent.

Kavanaugh is one of two Trump appointees who are part of the court’s 5-4 conservative majority, along with Neil Gorsuch.

The Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized the procedure nationwide in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The court on Feb. 1 temporarily blocked the Lousiana law, which was due to go into effect on Feb. 4, while the justices decided how to proceed.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Sandra Maler)

California utility PG&E vows more power shutdowns to prevent wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California utility PG&E Corp plans to increase the controversial practice of shutting off the power to communities at risk of wildfire when dangerous conditions such as high winds and dry heat are present.

In a report to state regulators, PG&E said it would also remove 375,000 trees near electricity lines, trim vegetation over 2,500 square miles (6,475 square km) and conduct thousands of inspections to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

PG&E is under intense scrutiny for its role in sparking more than a dozen wildfires over the past two years. It filed bankruptcy last month, citing anticipated liabilities, including the possibility its equipment set off November’s deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

The San Francisco-based utility, which serves 16 million customers, said it would increase nearly tenfold its efforts to turn off the power to communities threatened by wildfire, increasing the number of households and businesses potentially affected by fire-prevention blackouts in 2019 to 5.4 million.

Such shutoffs were also used last year to keep live electricity in the lines from setting off a fire when high winds and heat hit extreme levels and nearby brush or trees could be ignited.

Mark Toney, who directs the utility consumer advocacy group the Utility Reform Network (TURN), said shutting off power would harm vulnerable people, including those who rely on electricity to power life-saving medical equipment.

“The fact that there is such a dramatic expansion of power shutoffs as a strategy to stop wildfires is a sign of PG&E’s failure and mismanagement when it comes to trimming the trees and taking care of the grid,” he said.

PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said the company would only turn off the power to a community as a last resort to keep people safe.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” she said.

The company is also on probation in relation to a criminal conviction in the deadly 2010 explosion of one of its natural gas lines in the city of San Bruno near San Francisco.

The judge, in that case, said he would consider the company’s wildfire plan in deciding whether PG&E should do more to prevent wildfire.

California law requires all investor-owned utilities to file wildfire mitigation plans annually.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)