(UPDATE Jan. 8, 2020- On Wednesday, St. Louis County Court spokeswoman Christine Bertelson confirmed that one trial set to start Jan. 27 has been officially postponed with no new trial date yet set. That trial was to pit a woman named Sharlean Gordon against Monsanto. )
Discussions are underway to postpone one or more highly anticipated Roundup cancer trials set to start in January, including trials scheduled for St. Louis, the former hometown of Roundup herbicide maker Monsanto Co., according to sources close to the litigation.
Court dockets still show trials scheduled for later this month in St. Louis and in California courts, and court officials say they are still planning for the trials to take place on the designated dates. But multiple legal sources said the opposing sides were nearing agreements that would put off the trials by several months, if not longer. Attorneys for Monsanto and for the plaintiffs in the upcoming January trials declined to comment.
The talk of trial delays is not unexpected. Bayer AG, the German company that bought Monsanto in June 2018, successfully negotiated the postponement of several trials that had been set for the fall of 2019 after losing each of the three trials held to date. Each involved plaintiffs who claimed their cancers were caused by exposure to Roundup and other Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicides.
The juries found not just that the company’s herbicides can cause cancer, but that Monsanto knew about the risks and hid the information from consumers. Bayer has estimated more than 42,700 people have filed claims in the United States against Monsanto, which is now a wholly owned unit of Bayer.
Bayer and a team of plaintiffs’ attorneys have been pursuing a potential settlement of the litigation that could amount to well more than $8 billion, the legal sources said.
Bayer has been particularly uneasy about trials scheduled for St. Louis, where former Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant has been subpoenaed to testify and the trial of plaintiff Sharlean Gordon is to be broadcast to the public. In the three previous trials, all held in California, Monsanto executives have given testimony through depositions and have not had to take the stand in front of juries.
“Trial postponements make perfect sense right now,” said Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Tom Claps. “I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to stay out of the courtroom at this time, especially when negotiations seem to be progressing in a positive manner.”
Amid the maneuvering, more cases continue to stack up. Lawyers for Monsanto were in court Monday in Independence, Missouri to set a schedule and trial date for a newly filed lawsuit brought by a woman suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma she claims she developed due to her residential use of Roundup.
Gregory Chernack of the Washington, D.C., -based Hollingsworth law firm, one of Monsanto’s long-serving defense firms, told the judge in Independence that Monsanto wanted the case consolidated with roughly 30 others being overseen by a different judge in Kansas City, Mo. Attorneys for plaintiff Sheila Carver objected to the suggestion, and asked the judge to go ahead and set a trial date. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Phillips decided to give the parties 30 days to file motions on the matter.
Bayer’s annual shareholders’ meeting is set for April 28 and analysts said investors would like to see either a settlement of the litigation by that time, or at least meaningful progress in containing the liability. Bayer’s stock took a dive, losing billions of dollars in value, after the first jury verdict in August 2018, and share prices remain depressed.
“Bayer’s stock has reacted negatively to each of the three trial verdicts. Therefore, Bayer does not want to face more negative trial headlines from losing another trial, especially while it is engaged in good faith settlement discussions,” said Claps.
There are multiple factors at play, however, including the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the appeals that are pending for each of the three trials. If an appellate court were to overturn the jury findings of Monsanto’s liability, it would weaken the plaintiffs’ bargaining power for a global settlement. Conversely, the company’s position would be weakened if the jury verdicts are upheld on appeal. But no decision is expected on the appeals for several more months at least.