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August 7, 2019

Speculation Over Settlement as Roundup Cancer Trial Postponed

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The mysterious delay of what was supposed to be a closely watched St. Louis showdown over claims that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides cause cancer has stirred speculation that a settlement may be in the offing and heartened investors in Monsanto’s German owner Bayer, who feared a fourth trial loss.

The trial in St. Louis, Monsanto’s former long-time hometown, was set to begin Aug. 19 and feature live testimony from several Monsanto executives subpoenaed by the legal team representing plaintiff Sharlean Gordon. Gordon is one of roughly 18,000 plaintiffs suing Monsanto alleging not only that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company knew about the risks but rather than warning users instead acted to suppress and manipulate scientific research.

The three previous trials, which Monsanto lost, were all held in California courts where Monsanto executives could not be compelled to testify live in front of a jury. But in St. Louis they would almost certainly be forced to appear. Plaintiff’s counsel had plans to call former Monsanto Chairman Hugh Grant, as well as company scientists William Heydens, Donna Farmer, and William Reeves. Larry Kier, a Monsanto consultant who became caught up in a ghost-writing scandal, was also on the plaintiff’s list to be called as a witness.

Bayer had its own firepower headed for St. Louis in the form of famed attorney Phil Beck. The company has tried three different legal teams for the three trials so far, adding Beck to the case this summer. Beck, of the Chicago-based Barlit Beck law firm, headed George W. Bush’s trial team in the Florida recount litigation that determined the 2000 presidential election. Beck was tapped to represent the United States in United States v. Microsoft,  in one phase of the Microsoft antitrust action.

It was late Monday afternoon when St. Louis County Court Judge Brian May informed court personnel that the Gordon v. Monsanto trial would be postponed until January. May said he would issue an order at a later date, according to court spokeswoman Christine Bertelson.

Judge May is on vacation this week but wanted to make his intentions clear now because the process of gathering a jury pool for the trial was getting underway. He wanted that process halted to avoid wasting court time and resources and the time of prospective jurors given the trial was being delayed, Bertelson said.

Legal observers said the judge would not delay a trial this close to the opening unless both parties had agreed to the continuance. Neither would comment publicly on whether or not settlement talks were underway for the Gordon case.

Both parties have made it known that they wish to negotiate a global settlement in the Roundup litigation, though sources associated both with Bayer and plaintiffs’ counsel said potential settlement talks may focus initially on the Gordon case alone, or possibly Gordon’s claims along with additional St. Louis plaintiffs.

In a call with investors on July 30, Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said  the company was “constructively engaging in the mediation process” and would “only consider a settlement if financially reasonable and if we can achieve finality of the overall litigation.”

Baumann has come under withering criticism for his touting of the $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto. Within only two months after closing the deal, Bayer share prices plummeted when the first Roundup cancer trial resulted in a unanimous jury verdict of $289 million against the company. Total jury awards in the three trials to date have surpassed $2 billion in punitive damages alone, though judges in the three cases have lowered the punitive awards.

Investors lodged a vote of no confidence against Baumann earlier this year due to the roughly 40 percent drop in share value attributed to the Monsanto litigation.

Investors generally would welcome a global settlement of the litigation, according to investment analysts following Bayer. There has been speculation in the analyst community that a settlement could top $10 billion.

Gordon, 52, was expected to be a particularly compelling plaintiff, according to her attorney Aimee Wagstaff. Gordon, a mother of two, has suffered multiple rounds of unsuccessful cancer treatment for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma, as the cancer has spread through her body over many years. She recently suffered a setback with a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

Gordon developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup herbicides for 25 years at her residence in South Pekin, Illinois. Gordon’s stepfather, who also used Roundup at the family home, died of cancer.  The case  is actually derived from a larger case filed in July 2017 on behalf of more than 75 plaintiffs. Gordon is the first of that group to go to trial.