Richard G. "Bugs" Stevens is a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
A federal jury in California decided unanimously that the"Lymphoma" by Edwin Hardeman, 70, who has been using Roundup on his property for many years. It's the second verdict of this type in less than eight months. In August 2018, another jury found that gardener DeWayne Johnson had developed cancer from his exposure to Roundup and ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson. .
In such instances of manufacturer liability, the plaintiffs must prove that the product was the "specific cause" of the injury caused. The law sets a very high bar, which may be unrealistic for damages such as the diagnosis of cancer. Nevertheless, two juries have now ruled against Roundup.
Monsanto's lawyers insist that Roundup is safe and that the plaintiffs' arguments in both cases were scientifically erroneous. The jurors felt, however, that they were shown enough evidence to meet the legal criteria for concluding that Roundup was the "specific cause" of cancer in both men.
As a result of these high-profile trials, Los Angeles County ended the use ofall of its departments until clearer evidence of its potential effects on health and the environment.
Although "evidence" has a similar primary meaning in science and law – an expert consensus – the way it is carried out is often very different. More importantly, in science, there is no deadline for discovery, while in law, speed is paramount. The puzzle is that a legal decision may be needed for a potentially dangerous product on the market before the science is settled.
What is the "proof"?
Evidence is an elusive concept. Do we need proof that our jungle sting preview is a tiger before running? Do we need proof that the reactors are reliable before releasing a plane that has to take off for London with 300 passengers on board?
Can the proof be absolute or is it in itself a statement of probabilities?
Scientists use evidence to improve our understanding of nature. Science assumes that there is an objective reality underlying all of nature that we can eventually understand. Nature has no moral foundation: it is neither good nor bad, it is simply. Scientists are human beings, so they experience joy or disappointment depending on the outcome of an experiment, but these emotions do not alter the truths of nature.
On the other hand, lawyers use the evidence to do justice to people. The law is based on the premise that there are widely accepted codes of human behavior, which should be rectified in case of violation. Ideally, justice in the sense of the law is a highly moral enterprise based on equity.
Proof in science
Scientists vigorously discuss whether an experiment proves a new detail in the vast tapestry of nature. Most scientists require that a new experimental discovery be reproducible, statistically significant and plausible in the context of the experiments that preceded it.
But often conventional wisdom, based on what has been proven in the past, is false.
For example, until the 1980s, medical wisdom claimed that the cause of stomach ulcers was too much secretion of acid. As a result, younger doctors have taught the medical school how to treat ulcers with antacids, milk and a bland diet. Then, in 1983, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, two troubled Australians, suggested that a bacterium was causing ulcers.
Of course, this was not considered possible because no bacteria could survive in the very acidic environment of the stomach. Marshall and Warren were widely ridiculed after the publication of their article and heckled at conferences where they presented the idea. However, other scientists became interested and began to study alternative theory.
The new evidence accumulated over the next decade has finally proved that Marshall and Warren were right. They received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005. Today, the bacteria, H. pylori, is suspected not only of causing ulcers but also most of the stomach cancers in the world.
Proof in law
To reveal the facts of a dispute, the lawyers engage in a contradictory debate. Lawyers on each side discuss the point of view of their clients, without pretending to be objective. In an ideal world, with diligent and honest lawyers on both sides, justice should prevail. Often, however, a case is not ideal.
In some actions in liability, it can be perfectly clear that a defective product, such as thethat automakers were forced to remember several years ago, caused the injury of a plaintiff. However, as I wrote about the first Roundup trial, it's almost impossible to prove in cancer cases.
DeWayne Johnson's lawsuit against Monsanto focused on a scientific assessment conducted in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization agency, categorizing glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – in "2A: probably carcinogenic to humans". However, this finding does not mean that Roundup is "probably" at the origin of Johnson's lymphoma.
The European Food Safety Authority, an equally authoritative deliberative body, also assessed glyphosate, concluding that it was unlikely to present a cancer risk and that actual exposure levels were not a problem. public health. This study examined much of the same evidence as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but interpreted it differently.
Nevertheless, the jury concluded that Roundup caused Johnson's cancer and awarded $ 289 million in damages, which was reduced to $ 80 million on appeal. Clearly, in their view, there was sufficient "evidence" to support the Roundup case.
Different types of expertise
In science, the evidence can only be defined as a consensus of experts who agree that the facts overwhelmingly support a specific conclusion. In law, the jury plays this role, the jurors to become experts in the field.
This means, of course, that what has been proven in science or law may not be proven with new evidence or new experts.
Many major issues in physics, geology and biology have taken centuries to answer, and scientists are constantly reassessing these responses in the light of new evidence. For example, in the 1930s, physicists agreed that there were three fundamental particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons. Today, the standard model of physics considers that there are at least a dozen elementary particles, many others being assumed but not yet proven.
Legal judgments have much more immediate impacts – sometimes life or death. Delayed justice is justice denied, and jurors must hear on final evidence to make a verdict. But, as history has painfully taught us, rushed judgment can give the opposite of equity. Glyphosate has many benefits that need to be weighed against potential damage.
So what should a juror do in the next Roundup trial? As I have already explained, the "specific cause" of cancer can hardly ever be proven.
However, this does not mean that a plaintiff does not have a cause. If the current legal standard were replaced by the "likelihood of causality" as used by the Centers for Disease Control for Occupational Cancers, a jury could then find a product that is guilty of a substantial increase in risk and attribute to the plaintiff a potentially great compensation. In my opinion, if that were the norm, both future decisions and the two we have already seen would further harmonize law and science on this issue.
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.