Bayer Said to Be Reneging on Roundup Settlement Deals as Virus Closes Courthouses
By Carey Gillam
Bayer AG is reneging on negotiated settlements with several U.S. law firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who claim exposure to Monsanto's Roundup herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, sources involved in the litigation said on Friday.
The reversal comes as U.S. courts are closed to the public because of the spreading coronavirus, eliminating the specter of another Roundup cancer trial in the near future.
Bayer, which bought Monsanto in June of 2018, has been engaged in settlement talks for close to a year, seeking to put an end to mass litigation that has driven down the company's stock, spurred investor unrest, and thrust questionable corporate conduct into a public spotlight. The first three trials led to three losses for Bayer and jury awards of more than $2 billion, though trial judges later reduced the awards.
Bayer made a public statement this week saying that settlement talks have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, but multiple plaintiffs' lawyers said that was not true.
According to the plaintiffs' attorneys, Bayer has been going back to law firms that had already completed negotiations for specified settlements for their clients, saying the company will not honor the agreed-upon amounts.
"A lot of lawyers around the country thought they had tentative deals," said Virginia attorney Mike Miller, whose firm represents roughly 6,000 clients and won two of the three Roundup trials to date. Bayer is now demanding a "hair cut" on those deals, Miller said.
Whether or not the various firms will take the reduced offers remains to be seen. "These are uncertain economic times," Miller said. "People have to consider what's best for their clients."In response to a request for comment, a Bayer spokesman provided the following statement: "We've made progress in the Roundup mediation discussions, but the COVID-19 dynamics, including restrictions imposed in recent weeks, have caused meeting cancellations and delayed this process … As a result, the mediation process has significantly slowed, and realistically, we expect this will continue to be the case for the immediate future. During this time, we will continue to do whatever we can to help combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with our vision of 'health for all, hunger for none.' We cannot speculate about potential outcomes from the negotiations or timing, given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and the confidentiality of this process, but we remain committed to engaging in mediation in good faith."
US Right to Know reported in early January that the parties were working on a settlement of roughly $8 billion to $10 billion. Bayer has acknowledged facing claims from more than 40,000 plaintiffs, but plaintiffs' attorneys have said the total number of claims is much higher.
Among the firms who had negotiated settlements for their clients are the Andrus Wagstaff firm from Denver, Colorado and the Los Angeles firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman. Both reached agreements last year with Bayer.
In addition, the Weitz & Luxenberg firm from New York and Mike Miller's firm recently reached what they thought were agreements on terms. Each of the firms represents thousands of plaintiffs.
The primary leverage plaintiffs' attorneys had been using in the settlement negotiations was the threat of another public trial. In the first three trials, damning internal Monsanto documents laid bare evidence that the company knew of the cancer risks of its glyphosate-based herbicides but failed to warn consumers; ghost-wrote scientific papers proclaiming the safety of its herbicides; worked with certain regulatory officials to quash a government review of glyphosate toxicity; and engineered efforts to discredit critics.
The revelations have triggered outrage around the world and prompted moves to ban the glyphosate-based herbicides.
Several trials that were to have been held over the last several months were cancelled shortly before they were scheduled to begin when Bayer agreed to individual settlements for those specific trial plaintiffs. Two of those cases involved children stricken with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a third was brought by a woman suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Those plaintiffs, and others who have agreed to settlements in lieu of trials in recent months, are protected and are not part of the current rollback effort by Bayer, according to multiple sources involved.
Bayer is slated to hold its annual shareholders' meeting on April 28. For the first time in the company's history, the meeting will be held entirely online.
The first three plaintiffs to win jury awards against Monsanto have yet to receive any money as Bayer appeals the verdicts.