Judge shoots down Bayer’s plan to limit future Roundup legal liability, issues harsh criticism

Print Email Share Tweet

(UPDATED May 27 with Bayer statement about new plans)

The federal judge overseeing nationwide Roundup litigation on Wednesday denied Bayer’s latest attempt to limit its legal liability from future cancer claims associated with its glyphosate-based herbicides, citing numerous “glaring flaws” in a settlement proposed to apply to Roundup users who have not yet sued the company but may want to do so in the future.

Saying parts of the plan were “clearly unreasonable” and unfair to cancer sufferers who would be part of the class settlement, U.S. Judge Vince Chhabria castigated Bayer and the small group of lawyers who put the plan together in conjunction with Bayer.

He pointed out that the company has been “losing trials left and right” in claims brought by people suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) who alleged exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides were the cause.

Bayer has owned Monsanto since 2018 and has been struggling to defend the cancer claims ever since. Cancer victims have won three trials held to date, and tens of thousands of other plaintiffs have filed lawsuits alleging exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides caused them to develop NHL while Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

Elizabeth Cabraser, one of the lawyers who structured the settlement plan, said the proponents were “disappointed” by the ruling and “continue to believe that a multi-billion-dollar class settlement that includes free legal services and substantial compensation to claimants, NHL diagnostic assistance, research into NHL treatment, and Roundup label reform to inform users and the public on all the science regarding a Roundup/NHL link, would provide tremendous financial, health and safety benefits for class members.”

But one of the lead objectors to the plan, lawyer Majed Nachawati, said Cabraser had attempted to “create a sham settlement” that would have harmed the legal rights of “thousands of injured Americans.”

Bayer issued a statement following the judge’s order saying it would consider “the future of glyphosate-based products in the U.S. residential market,” though any changes there would “not affect the availability of glyphosate-based products in markets for professional and agricultural users.” The company said discussions about the future of residential Roundup products was part of a “five-point plan” the company would now pursue.

“The new package of measures, which combine a number of legal and commercial actions, is designed to help the company achieve a level of risk mitigation that is comparable to the previously proposed national class solution,” Bayer said.

Evidence favors plaintiffs, judge says

Judge Chhabria said in his decision that the company’s desire to set up a “science panel” to determine whether or not the herbicides actually cause cancer rather than leave that question to future juries is because of the trial losses the company has so far suffered.

The “reason Monsanto wants a science panel so badly is that the company has lost the ‘battle of the experts’ in three trials, the judge wrote in his order.  “At present, the playing field on the issue of expert testimony related to causation is slanted heavily in favor of plaintiffs.”

The ruling comes after a lengthy hearing last week held to discuss widespread opposition by personal injury attorneys across the United States to the settlement proposal. The proposed plan called for Bayer to put up roughly $2 billion for a series of actions that would help the company avoid future Roundup cancer trials.

The class action settlement would apply to people exposed to Roundup products as of Feb. 3, 2021 who have not yet sued Monsanto or retained a lawyer to do so. The settlement plan would set up a framework for addressing new claims brought by those exposed individuals who develop NHL they attribute to their Roundup exposure. It would apply to people who already have NHL but who have not yet sued the company and to people who develop NHL in the future.

The plan was structured by Bayer in coordination with a small team of plaintiffs’ lawyers who stood to be paid millions of dollars for their participation.

Proponents of the proposed class action plan told the judge it “will save lives,” and provide “speedy compensation” to people who get NHL they blame on Roundup exposure.

But opponents said the proposal actually did little for cancer patients while benefiting Bayer and the lawyers who helped develop the plan.

At the heart of the objections is the view that if approved, the class action plan could limit the due process rights of people to go to trial and seek punitive damages awards in the future if they are diagnosed with NHL after Roundup exposure, while allowing Bayer to keep selling Roundup products with no express warning of a cancer risk on the label.

The limiting of plaintiffs’ ability to seek punitive damages while not limiting Bayer’s ability to keep selling Roundup distinguishes this settlement from any similar class action, according to an opposition brief filed by the nonprofit legal group Public Justice. The plan is a “blueprint for how manufacturers can cut off victims’ rights to seek punitive damages from injuries caused by hazardous pesticides, the group said.

Another key problem with the plan, according to critics, is that everyone in the United States who meets the criteria as a potential plaintiff would automatically become part of the class and subject to its provisions if they did not actively opt out of the class within a specified time period. If people did not opt out – even if they didn’t know about the plan – they would be stripped of  the right to seek punitive damages if they ever did file a lawsuit.

“Monsanto tried to buy its own system of justice and it is wonderful that the court saw through what they were trying to do,” said lawyer Gerson Smoger, who is among the opponents.  “The settlement would’ve been a travesty for those who use Roundup.”

Separate from larger settlement

The class action plan, which is separate from an $11 billion settlement of Roundup litigation announced by Bayer last June to address already filed lawsuits, needs approval from Chhabria. The judge has been overseeing the federal multidistrict Roundup litigation involving thousands of plaintiffs from around the United States.

Bayer’s desire to find a settlement is “not surprising because the alternative to settling – continuing to lose trials left and right – is not attractive,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

“In sum, the settlement proposed by these attorneys would accomplish a lot for Monsanto,” he wrote. “It would substantially diminish the company’s settlement exposure and litigation exposure at the
back end, eliminating punitive damages and potentially increasing its chances of winning trials
on compensatory damages. It would accomplish far less for the Roundup users who have not
been diagnosed with NHL—and not nearly as much as the attorneys pushing this deal contend.”

Bayer’s new plan

Bayer said in addition to consideration of withdrawing Roundup from residential use, the company’s  plan includes the following:

  • Creation and promotion of a new website with scientific studies relevant to Roundup safety, and a request that EPA approves corresponding language on Roundup labels.
  • Exploration of the creation of an independent scientific advisory panel comprised of external scientific experts to review scientific information regarding the safety of Roundup. The results would be released publicly and added to the new website.
  • Continuation of settlement discussions and continuing appeals of the two of the three cases lost at trial. The company already exhausted appeals in the first case it lost at trial. Bayer is hoping to get a case to the U.S. Supreme Court and get a favorable ruling on its position that state-based failure-to-warn claims conflict with, and are preempted by, federal law.