Trial lawyers accuse Monsanto, Bayer of “pay-to-appeal scheme,” allege “fraud”

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The lawyers who led the nationwide U.S. Roundup litigation through three trial victories and forced Monsanto owner Bayer AG into an $11 billion settlement have notified a federal court that they have uncovered evidence of fraud in a secret deal between Monsanto and a lone plaintiff’s lawyer who has not been active in the litigation until recently.

In a series of filings made Thursday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, lawyers from three firms involved in the three successful Roundup trials alerted the court to what they said was an effort by Monsanto to “buy” a favorable appellate court ruling.

The agreement between Monsanto and one plaintiff and his attorney is a “pay-to-appeal scheme,” according to plaintiffs’ lawyers Aimee Wagstaff, Brent Wisner and Jennifer Moore.  The legal team asks the court to dismiss the appeal they allege is the focus of the scheme.

The lawyer involved in cutting the deal with Monsanto is Ashleigh Madison of Southeast Law LLC in Savannah, Georgia.  Madison confirmed various terms of the arrangement with Monsanto to Wagstaff’s firm in an email and phone conversations recounted in a declaration, according to the filings made Thursday.

When contacted for comment, Madison denied the allegations and said her client’s best interests are her “top priority.” She said she looks “forward to further addressing the matter before a court of law, as our system of justice intends.”

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, also said the claims made by Wagstaff, Wisner and Moore are false.  The company issued a statement saying it has been “completely transparent about its desire to appeal Roundup failure-to-warn cases on federal preemption grounds,” and the deal with Madison and her client is “an appropriate path for such an appeal.”

Monsanto has lost all appeals associated with the first case that went to trial, Johnson v. Monsanto, and has appeals pending in the two subsequent trials it lost. Juries in the three trials found the company’s glyphosate-based weed killers such as Roundup caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma suffered by plaintiffs, and that Monsanto failed to warn of the risks.

The company’s primary hope at this point is to get a U.S. Supreme Court finding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of its products, and stance that those products are not likely to cause cancer, essentially bars complaints that Monsanto didn’t warn of any cancer risk with its herbicides. Monsanto is asserting the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) preempts state laws and a duty to warn.

But a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law, and FIFRA expressly states that EPA approval doesn’t constitute an absolute defense. Citing the law and the precedent, more than a dozen federal and state courts have rejected the preemption argument, according to the filing submitted Thursday by the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

If Bayer can force one of the weaker cases to the U.S. Supreme Court and win on preemption, it would thwart the key claims brought by tens of thousands of plaintiffs and likely save Bayer from significant ongoing legal liability costs.

Georgia judge decision

At the heart of the matter is one case, that of Carson v. Monsanto, filed in 2017. The case alleged that plaintiff John Carson developed malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH) from exposure to Roundup. The legal team for the nationwide litigation point out in their filing this week that while there is robust scientific evidence associating Roundup exposure to NHL, there is a lack of scientific evidence associating Roundup to MFH, differentiating the case from the bulk of others filed against the company.

The case languished until Monsanto filed a motion with U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker in Savannah, Georgia seeking a judgment in its favor on the issue of federal preemption. The district court judge found in favor of Monsanto, agreeing the Carson claim was preempted and the company had no duty to warn of a cancer risk. The judge ruled in favor of Carson, however, on claims that Monsanto was negligent and the design of Roundup products was defective.

Monsanto has since told Carson and his attorney to drop the claims they won on and appeal the preemption ruling they lost, according to the declaration filed by David Wool, a lawyer in the Andrus Wagstaff plaintiffs’ firm.

“Monsanto’s counsel, Martin Calhoun of Hollingsworth LLP, told Madison that Monsanto would never pay her client anything unless he appealed the District Court’s preemption decision – a decision that Monsanto won – and that Monsanto was offering to pay Carson money to appeal the decision,” the declaration states.

Monsanto agreed to pay Carson an undisclosed sum only if he will appeal the decision, according to the new court filing. If he does not drop the claims he won and appeal the preemption matter Monsanto has threatened to make him pay nearly $100,000 in legal fees and costs, according to information turned up by Wagstaff, Wisner and Moore’s law firms.

Carson is required by the deal to appeal only the preemption issue and no other elements of his claims, the legal challenge states:

“While Monsanto’s Civil Appeal Statement suggests it paid Carson to settle his claims not subject to this appeal, in truth, it did no such thing. Payment of the first sum was tied to noticing the appeal, not dismissal of any of Carson’s claims. Carson’s attorney openly admits that Monsanto would never pay Carson unless he appealed the district court’s preemption ruling and corroborated, in writing, that the settlement agreement requires Carson to appeal. If Carson does not appeal, he does not get paid. Indeed, his appeal is so central to getting paid that if he elects to not appeal, he is not only bereft of any settlement, but he is also subject to hefty  liquidated damages. Monsanto is paying Carson to appeal and then threatening him if he does not follow through.

“This appeal should be dismissed—any other result would set a dangerous precedent of appellate review being “for sale” to deep-pocketed litigants. This appeal should be dismissed—any other result would set a dangerous precedent of appellate review being “for sale” to deep-pocketed litigants.”

Allowing the Monsanto-manufactured appeal to go forward “risks turning the justice system on its head by allowing deep-pocketed parties to attempt to broaden the scope of favorable rulings they receive by coercing their adversaries to appeal. This Court’s decisions should not be for sale,” the plaintiffs’ team states in their filing. “This sort of judicial manipulation must be loudly and forcefully rejected.”

Monsanto “ulterior motives”

The declaration filed by Wool recounts conversations with Madison, Carson’s attorney. He states: “On March 15, 2021 I called attorney Ashleigh Madison. During the conversation, Madison confirmed her client’s settlement agreement with Monsanto in the Carson case, and stated that the “first payment” was triggered by filing a notice of appeal.  I expressed my concern that Monsanto had concocted this settlement agreement in an attempt to create favorable appellate law for itself. Madison confirmed that this was her understanding as well, stating that she believed Monsanto had “ulterior motives.”

According to Wool, Madison said her client had only a “very slim chance” of winning the appeal Monsanto was inducing them to file. Still, her client would obtain a “high” value from Monsanto, she told Wool, according to the declaration.

In their letter brief to the court, the trial lawyers said because Carson’s counsel admits that Monsanto is paying Carson to appeal a decision Monsanto won at in order to create appellate precedent, the case “warrants immediate dismissal.”

Litigants “cannot buy appellate review of decisions they won. The Court should reject this attempt to manipulate our judicial system and dismiss the appeal with prejudice because Carson and Monsanto are
deceiving the Court by claiming that an actual case or controversy exists when, in truth, this
appeal was bought and paid for by Monsanto,” they wrote. The Carson agreement “erodes the very foundation of our justice system, which is premised on the principle that opposing parties are actually adversarial—not paying each other to manufacture controversies and seek advisory opinions.”

Bayer said in its statement that the trio of trial lawyers are mischaracterizing the facts.

“Under the settlement, the company agreed to pay Carson $100,000 to drop the surviving design defect claims and to pursue the preemption ruling against him,” Bayer said in the statement. “If he succeeds in the appeal, he gets an additional substantial payment. If Carson drops the appeal, he would simply have to return the $100,000 settlement payment because he would be in breach of its terms. Thus, plaintiffs’ characterization of the $100,000 as a ‘penalty’ in a court filing is completely false, and nothing more than an effort to block this appeal on federal preemption grounds which threatens their interests in this litigation.”

Tech, Medical and Farm Groups Ask Appeals Court to Overturn Verdict Against Monsanto

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Groups representing farm, medical and biotechnology interests have filed briefs with the California Court of Appeal, aligning with Monsanto in asking the court to overturn last summer’s jury verdict that found Monsanto’s glyphosate-herbicides cause cancer and determined that the company spent years covering up the risks.

The groups are urging the appeals court to either throw out the win a San Francisco jury gave to school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson in August of 2018 or to invalidate an order for Monsanto to pay punitive damages to Johnson. The Johnson trial was the first against Monsanto over claims that its glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Johnson is one of more than 18,000 plaintiffs making similar claims. The lawsuits allege that Monsanto was aware of scientific research showing an association between its herbicides and cancer but rather than warn consumers the company worked to suppress the research and manipulate scientific literature.

The jury in the Johnson case decided Monsanto should pay $289 million in damages, including $250 million in punitive damages. The trial judge in the case later slashed the punitive damage amount, reducing the total award to $78 million. Two other juries in subsequent trials over similar claims have also found in favor of plaintiffs and ordered large punitive damages against Monsanto.

Monsanto appealed the verdict and Johnson cross-appealed, seeking reinstatement of the full $289 million. Oral arguments are expected in this appeals court this fall with a potential decision from the appeals court before the end of the year.

One of the parties filing a brief supporting Monsanto’s position is Genentech Inc., a San Francisco biotech company with a history of doing research for cancer treatments. In its appeal to the court, Genentech argues that it has expertise as a “science company” and sees the Johnson verdict as a threat to scientific progress. “Courts must ensure the proper use of science in the courtroom in order for innovation to flourish in the marketplace…” the Genentech brief states.

Genentech announced earlier this year a fast-track review from the Food and Drug Administration for a drug treatment for people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In backing Monsanto’s appeal, Genentech echoed complaints by Monsanto that Johnson’s lawyers did not properly present expert scientific testimony: “Genentech writes to highlight the importance of the proper screening of scientific expert testimony for companies with scientifically innovative products and consumers who rely on their innovations.”

The company also sided with Monsanto on the issue of punitive damages, arguing that companies should not be subject to punitive damages if their product has been reviewed by a regulatory agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and found to not pose a risk to human health.

“Allowing juries to award punitive damages for products that have been specifically examined and approved by regulatory agencies creates a large risk of confusion for life-science-based companies and may deter the progress of science,” the Genentech brief states. “If such punitive damages awards are allowed, companies face the risk of massive punitive damages awards unless they routinely second guess the safety decisions of regulators.”

On Tuesday the California Farm Bureau Federation filed its own brief supporting Monsanto. The farm bureau, which says it represents 36,000 members, said the case is of “vital concern” to farmers and ranchers who “depend on crop protection tools to grow food and fiber.”

Even though the Johnson verdict does not impact the regulation of glyphosate herbicides, the farm bureau argues in its brief that the industry fears restrictions on the chemical. The farm group additionally argued that the “trial court’s decision disregards federal law, as well as state law…” because it conflicts with the EPA’s finding that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer.

Additionally, California associations representing doctors, dentists and hospitals weighed in on behalf of Monsanto arguing that the jury’s decision in the Johnson case was “subject to emotional manipulation” and not based on “scientific consensus.”

“The answer to the complex scientific question the jury was required to resolve in this case should have been based on accepted scientific evidence and rigorous scientific reasoning, not the jury’s policy choices. Even worse, there is reason to suspect the jury’s analysis was based on speculation and emotion,” the associations said in their brief.

Johnson’s attorney, Mike Miller, said he feels “real good” about the chances of victory in the appeals court and described the brief from the California Medical Association as the “same sophomoric brief they file against every victim of negligence.”

Missouri Trial Can Proceed

In separate action in Missouri , the state’s supreme court said on Tuesday that a trial set to start Oct. 15 in the city of St. Louis can proceed as planned on behalf of plaintiff Walter Winston. Other plaintiffs who had joined in Winston’s complaint against Monsanto are expected to be severed and/or have their cases delayed, according to a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court. Monsanto had asked the high court to prohibit the trial from taking place due to the fact that several plaintiffs do not reside in the area.

The Supreme Court instructed St. Louis City Judge Michael Mullen “take no further action” at this time in the cases of the 13 plaintiffs.

Monsanto was acquired by Bayer AG in June of 2018, and Bayer’s share prices fell sharply following the Johnson verdict and have remained depressed. Investors are pressing for a global settlement to end the litigation.