The lawyers are coming

Columns - Parting Shots

September 10, 2018

So I’m driving to work this morning, half-listening to the crazy morning gang (ugh) on my radio when they break to a commercial. I was jarred to hear this:

“If you or a loved one were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup weed killer, you may be entitled to compensation. Call (insert shady law firm’s name here) now.”

Just a few weeks after a California jury awarded $289 million to a former school groundskeeper with cancer, the sharks are in the water. They smell blood – and by that I mean giant class-action settlements or verdicts – and it’s going to impact all of us.

I hate it when I’m right all the time, but my first thought when I originally heard about the verdict was, “Now the floodgates will open.” Sure enough, the ginormous legal industry wasted no time in coming after a product that every one of us has used. In fact, this is hardly a new topic for the sharks. More than 400 suits about NHL and glyphosate have already been filed around the country and aggregated in front of another federal judge in California. The latest news will blow that number up.

This has nothing and everything to do with the anti-GMO controversy and the ludicrous new claims about glyphosate in Cheerios that shameless activist groups threw on top of the bonfire created by the verdict. These particular legal claims are theoretically unrelated to food crops treated with Roundup. Yet, the lawyers clearly feel that it’s an easy target because people have been fed so much disinformation about the GMO issue. The facts become secondary to the emotion.

Here’s what the Los Angeles Times – one of America’s most liberal papers – said: “On the surface, the jury found that glyphosate more likely than not contributed to Johnson’s cancer. But that’s a questionable conclusion, for the simple reason that the scientific evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer, especially lymphatic cancer, is sketchy at best – and according to one huge study of herbicide use in the U.S., nonexistent.”

Instead, the lawyers suggested that inert ingredients and the formulation process somehow magically transformed a simple and safe compound into a carcinogen. So, they said, even though glyphosate couldn’t be proven to cause NHL, the product as a whole may. The jury seemed eager to send a message to the makers of Roundup, so they swallowed that argument whole and spit out a punitive damage award of a quarter-of-a-billion dollars.

This is going to be a long, ugly legal situation for the foreseeable future despite the science. Juries in big product liability cases don’t care about science. They care about sending messages.

Second, you’re probably going to face questions about this situation on several fronts. First from golfers and neighbors. As I write this in late August, I had already heard from superintendents who were being asked about Roundup and “those other poisons you use” by concerned folks. You need to be able to answer those questions simply and as transparently as possible. Something straightforward like this is probably the right way to go:

“All of the products we use are tested and registered by the EPA during a really rigorous process that goes on for a decade, requires thousands of tests and costs $150 million or more. Despite that testing, our team still handles these products carefully and follows the label instructions on when and how to use them and whether protective clothing is required. I have a college degree in turfgrass science and I’ve been studying these chemicals for years, and I would never apply something I felt posed any risk to my staff or our guests.”

Your employees need to hear that, too. Not only should they be confident that their workplace is healthy, they should also be prepared to answer those same questions from players.

You’ll likely get questions at home. You need to be as unequivocal as possible: “Nope, honey, it’s not a problem. I’m 100 percent confident that there’s no risk to me or my people. And, yes, I’m careful not to bring residue from any pesticides home with me on my clothes or skin.”

Golf is a tiny fraction of overall Roundup use but the fact that this case revolved around someone who worked in the green industry puts a bullseye on all of us. Will we see some of the same anti-pesticide hysteria we experienced in the early 1990s? Maybe. But, thanks to decades of education, a focus on IPM and better practices, and strong science to back up the safety of these products, we should be better equipped to ride the storm out.

But, in the meantime, batten down the hatches. We may be in for a bumpy voyage for a while.

Pat Jones is editorial director and publisher of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at or 216-393-0253.