Juul and Monsanto Cases Drive Litigation in Busy Northern District of California

Like the Southern District of New York, the Northern District of California is one of the busiest federal districts in the country. Founded in 1850 as one of California’s, then-two federal districts, it went through numerous changes including being fused with the Southern District at one point, before it settled into its current region in 1966. Today it encompasses fifteen counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma. This analysis examines all cases filed in the district from January 2019 through April 2023.

Looking at the total cases opened in the district over time, cases have been relatively consistent around a mean of 1056 cases per month but with major peaks in August 2019 and December 2022. The first peak coincides with a massive spike in cases against The Monsanto Company over its weed killer, Roundup, and negative health outcomes allegedly associated with its use. The second peak aligns with 1,105 cases against Juul Labs, Inc. arguing they, among other things, illegally advertised e-cigarettes to children led to a wave of teenagers becoming nicotine addicts.

In fact, the plurality of all cases in this district since 2019 are listed with the Nature of Suit (NOS) code 365 Personal Injury – Product Liability. The judiciary defines these cases as “those alleging personal injury or death resulting from a defective product.” Of all these cases, all but, on average, 23 cases per month, or 2%, involve Juul or Monsanto. 

Juul’s cases, unlike those of Monsanto, often also involve its parent companies Altria, Phillip Morris USA, and Tobacco Technologies, as well as its founders, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, and prominent shareholders Nicholas Pritzker and Hoyoung Huh.  

Throughout this time period, Monsanto has primarily worked with Hollingsworth and Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Juul, on the other hand, has spread their caseload around more, though they primarily have given the most work to Kirkland & Ellis and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. On the plaintiff side, the Beasley Allan Law Firm, the Frantz Law Group, Pulaski Kherkher, and Morgan & Morgan have handled the lion’s share. 

Outside of Product Liability cases, the top NOS codes are 446 – Americans With Disabilities – Other; 440 – Other Civil Rights; 820 – Copyright; 190 – Other Contract; 530 – General Habeas Corpus; and 830 – Patent. Of these, only 365, 446, 190, and 830 seem to drive the general trend of cases in the district. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act cases are dominated by a few serial suit filers, Scott Johnson, Brian Whitaker, Orlando Garcia, who primarily sue businesses in order to improve disability accessibility for all. These suits peaked in 2021 and have since all but disappeared

As to the other prominent NOS types, cases filed under the Civil Rights-Other tag are largely filed against municipalities and concern civil rights violations including police violence and discrimination.

Looking at the Copyright cases, the pornography production company Strike 3 Holdings LLC makes up the vast majority of cases. Other Contract cases involve primarily auto manufacturers like Ford and BMW and tech companies like Robinhood and Apple. The General Habeas Corpus suits typically involve private citizens as well as the people of the state of California. Patent cases in the District are dominated by tech companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung.

Throughout all the cases in the district, firms representing plaintiffs tend to be more active than those representing defendants, and they tend to be more specialized. The Center for Disability Access primarily handles 446 claims and the Law Offices of Lincoln Bandlow exclusively handles copyright claims. The remainder of the most active plaintiff firms primarily filed product liability claims in the district. 

Representing defendants, Hollingsworth; Shook, Hardy & Bacon; Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani; and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher have been the most active. As mentioned above, the first two have primarily represented Monsanto in the aforementioned product liability suits. The remaining two handle a mélange of all case types representing various manufacturers like Ford and Teva, and tech companies including Juul respectively.

And while less active in the NDCA than the SDNY, governmental law offices also see a considerable number of cases. While the Social Security Administration, unsurprisingly, deals with primarily Social Security cases, the Department of Justice and the US Attorney’s Office see similar though significantly different proportions of different case types.