Bayer plans to pay US$8bil to settle cancer claims

  • Business
  • Saturday, 10 Aug 2019

Ongoing talks: Baumann said at the end of July that he’d consider a financially reasonable settlement. — AFP

SAN FRANCISCO: Bayer AG is proposing to pay as much as US$8bil to settle more than 18, 000 US lawsuits alleging its Roundup herbicide causes cancer, according sources.

Though an agreement may not be imminent, if successful it would ease investor pressure over massive litigation exposure that has weighed on the stock price and fuelled speculation about a breakup of the German drug and chemical giant.

While Bayer floated paying US$6bil to US$8bil to resolve current and future cases, plaintiffs’ lawyers want more than US$10bil to drop their claims, the sources said. How much to include to compensate consumers who have yet to be diagnosed with illness is a sticking point that may take months to overcome, they added.

Bayer shares surged more than 11% early yesterday in Frankfurt, the most in a decade on an intraday basis. They’ve still fallen about one-third in the 14 months since the company’s US$63bil acquisition of the weedkiller’s maker, Monsanto Co.

The stock traded 8.5% higher at 68.29 euros.

Bayer’s lawyers and attorneys for former Roundup users are in ongoing talks, based in New York City, aimed at hammering out an accord to resolve all current cases and any future cancer claims filed over the world’s top-selling weedkiller, sources said.

Bayer spokesman Tino Andresen declined to comment on any settlement talks.

The negotiations have advanced to the point that Bayer and plaintiffs’ lawyers asked two judges in St Louis to push back cases set for trial starting soon, the sources said. Bayer chief executive officer Werner Baumann said at the end of July that he’d consider a “financially reasonable” settlement – after the company’s shares slumped amid a surge of new cases.

If a deal comes together, it would allay a shareholder revolt in the wake of three trial losses in a row in California that resulted in average payouts of almost US$50mil per plaintiff after judges reduced jury verdicts that added up to more than US$2.4bil. Thousands of new cases followed each defeat.

Major investors – such as US-based billionaire Paul Singer’s Elliott Management Corp –have been urging Bayer to drop its defend-at-all-cost approach to the suits and consider a settlement. Elliott disclosed in June that it has a US$1.3bil stake in Bayer.

Bayer’s decision to seek postponement of the St Louis trials is a clear signal settlement talks are progressing, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who teaches about mass personal injury litigation. US judges traditionally put cases on hold to give the parties a chance to resolve them, he said.

“If they can get out of this for under US$10bil after losing three in a row – with big awards assessed – it would be a great deal for Bayer, ” Tobias said.

“They lose a couple of more big ones in St Louis and settlement demand could balloon to US$20bil.”

Some litigation analysts have predicted Bayer will ultimately settle the cases for as little as US$2.5bil and as much as US$20bil. Experts have said that awards of tens of millions of dollars per plaintiff were a strong and bad sign for Bayer’s prospects in future trials, weakening its hand in settlement negotiations.

Mediator’s role

The settlement talks have been fostered by Kenneth Feinberg, a mediator called in by US District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco, who’s overseeing cases consolidated in federal court.

Feinberg previously administered compensation funds for victims of the Sept 11 attacks and later was hired by Volkswagen AG to oversee compensation for car owners affected by the diesel emissions-cheating scandal. He’s been working with attorneys for both Bayer and plaintiffs as they swap settlement proposals, the people said.

Feinberg, appointed in May, had to work quickly as Bayer was slated to face the next Roundup trial starting Aug 19 in state court in St Louis, the former headquarters of Monsanto, which started selling Roundup in the 1970s.

Juries in another St. Louis-area court – known for favouring plaintiffs – have come back with some supersized awards over the years, including a US$4.69bil verdict in 2018 against Johnson & Johnson over claims its baby powder was tainted with asbestos.

Court officials said this week that Roundup trials set for August and September will probably be postponed. They did not say whether the postponements were tied to settlement talks.

Bayer wants to avoid getting thumped with another US$2bil-plus verdict, like the one handed down in May by a jury in Oakland, California, to a husband and wife who both blamed their cancers on exposure to Roundup, Tobias said. Last month, a judge slashed that verdict by more than 95% to US$86.7mil, saying it was beyond the limits allowed by legal precedent.

The Oakland award was the largest in the United States. this year and the eighth-largest ever in a product-defect claim, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“They don’t want to try these cases in St. Louis, ” Tobias said. “It could be worse than California.”

Future claims

But coming up with a way to corral all future claims in a settlement that withstands court scrutiny may be difficult, said Jean Eggen, a Widener University law professor who teaches about toxic torts and environmental law.

The US Supreme Court hasn’t looked very favorably on other mass-tort settlements meant to resolve future claims over a product, she said.

“It’s much cleaner if you just settle the current cases and then when more come in, you add to the original settlement, ” Eggen said. “It’s a less problematic way to do this.” — Bloomberg

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