Bayer seeks U.S. Supreme Court review of Roundup trial loss

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Monsanto owner Bayer AG on Monday filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the high court’s review of one of its trial losses in the nationwide Roundup cancer litigation.

The move is widely seen as Bayer’s best hope for putting an end to claims that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the company failed to warn users of the risks. The company has thus far lost three out of three trials, and there are currently more than 100,000 existing plaintiffs as well as many more potential future plaintiffs expected to bring similar claims. Bayer has been trying to settle the cases and come up with a plan to limit, block or settle future claims.

Bayer’s writ of certiorari asks the court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Hardeman v. Monsanto. 

During the month-long trial in 2019, lawyers for plaintiff Edwin Hardeman presented jurors with a range of scientific research showing cancer connections to Monsanto’s herbicides as well as evidence of many Monsanto strategies aimed at suppressing the scientific information about the risks of its products. Internal Monsanto documents showed the company’s scientists had engaged in secretly ghost-writing scientific papers that the company then used to help convince regulators of product safety.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Monsanto should have warned consumers about the risks that its products could cause cancer. Lawyers in the other trials Monsanto lost presented similar arguments and evidence of cancer risk.

FIFRA fight

Bayer has said it hopes the Supreme Court will agree with Bayer’s position that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the United States, preempts those “failure-to-warn” claims that are central to the Roundup lawsuits. Because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved labels with no cancer warning, the failure-to-warn claims should be barred, the company maintains.

The petition filed Monday urges the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Hardeman trial loss on the grounds that FIFRA preempts a state-law failure to-warn claim “where the warning cannot be added to a product without EPA approval and EPA has repeatedly concluded that the warning is not appropriate.”

The petition also asks the court to address whether or not the Ninth Circuit’s standard for admitting expert testimony “is inconsistent with this Court’s precedent and Federal Rule of Evidence 702.” Bayer argues that the admission of expert testimony in the Hardeman case “departed from federal standards, enabling plaintiff’s causation witnesses to provide unsupported testimony on the principal issue in the case, Roundup’s safety profile.”

In its petition, Bayer argues: “The Ninth Circuit’s errors mean that a company can be severely punished for marketing a product without a cancer warning when the near-universal scientific and regulatory consensus is that the product does not cause cancer, and the responsible federal agency has forbidden such a warning.”

Hardeman lawyer Aimee Wagstaff said her legal team had been preparing for Bayer’s bid for Supreme Court review.

“While paying out billions of dollars to settle claims, Monsanto continues to refuse to pay Mr. Hardeman’s verdict.  That doesn’t seem fair to Mr. Hardeman.  Even so, this is Monsanto’s last chance Hail Mary,” Wagstaff said. “We are eager and ready to beat Monsanto at the Supreme Court and put this baseless preemption defense behind us once and for all.”

Bayer cites broad impact

The petition states that the decision in the Hardeman case, which was part of the multidistrict litigation handled in federal court, will “undoubtedly influence still others pending across the country.”

Bayer said in a statement: “The Petition underscores that consistent regulatory assessments in the U.S. and worldwide, and the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, support the conclusion that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe and not carcinogenic. In light of the EPA’s approval of the Roundup label without a cancer warning, any state-law failure-to-warn claims premised on such warning would plainly conflict with federal law and thus are preempted. Courts across the U.S. have divided on this basic question of when federal law preempts state law, which makes review by the U.S. Supreme Court both important and necessary. Indeed, it has been 16 years since the Supreme Court ruled on FIFRA preemption, and the prior case did not involve a warning that EPA had rejected.”

Lawyers for Hardeman did not respond to a request for comment.

Bayer has so far said it has earmarked more than $16 billion toward settling the Roundup litigation.

Appeals court rejects Bayer bid to overturn Roundup trial loss; cites Monsanto “reckless disregard” for consumer safety

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Monsanto owner Bayer AG has lost another appeals court decision in the sweeping U.S. Roundup  litigation, continuing to struggle to find a way out from under the crush of tens of thousands of claims alleging that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer.

In a decision handed down on Monday, the 1st Appellate District in the Court of Appeal for California rejected Monsanto’s bid to overturn the trial loss in a case brought by husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.

“We find that substantial evidence supports the jury’s verdicts,” the court stated. “Monsanto’s conduct evidenced reckless disregard of the health and safety of the multitude of unsuspecting consumers it kept in the dark. This was not an isolated incident; Monsanto’s conduct involved repeated actions over a period of many years motivated by the desire for sales and profit.”

The court specifically rejected the argument that federal law preempts such claims, an argument Bayer has told investors offers a potential path out of the litigation. Bayer has said it hopes it can get the U.S. Supreme  Court to agree with its preemption argument.

In May 2019 a jury awarded the Pilliods more than $2 billion in punitive and compensatory damages after lawyers for the couple argued they both developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma caused by their many years of using Roundup products.

The trial judge lowered the combined award to $87 million.

In appealing the loss, Monsanto argued not only that the Pilliod claims were preempted by federal law, but also that the jury’s causation findings were flawed, the trial court should not have admitted certain evidence, and that “the verdict is the product of attorney misconduct.” Monsanto also wanted the damage awards further slashed.

Court slams company

In the appeals court decision, the court left the award unchanged, and said that Monsanto had not shown that federal law did preempt such claims as those made by the Pilliods. The court also said there was substantial evidence that Monsanto acted with a “willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others,” supporting the awarding of punitive damages.

The evidence showed that Monsanto “failed to conduct adequate studies on glyphosate and Roundup, thus impeding discouraging, or distorting scientific inquiry concerning glyphosate and Roundup,” the court said.

The court also chastised Monsanto for not accurately presenting “all of the record evidence” in making its appeal: “But rather than fairly stating all the relevant evidence, Monsanto has made a lopsided presentation that relies primarily on the evidence in its favor. This type of presentation may work for a jury, but it will not work for the Court of Appeal.”

The court added: “The trial described in Monsanto’s opening brief bears little resemblance to the trial reflected in the record.”

“Summed up, the evidence shows Monsanto’s intransigent unwillingness to inform the public about the carcinogenic dangers of a product it made abundantly available at hardware stores and garden shops across the country,” the court said.

Another trial underway now

The Pilliod trial was the third against Monsanto. In the first trial, a unanimous jury awarded plaintiff Dewayne Johnson $289 million;  the plaintiff in the second trial was awarded $80 million.

The fourth trial began last week. A jury of seven men and five women on Monday were hearing testimony in the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California.  Retired U.S. government scientist Christopher Portier, who has been an expert witness for the plaintiffs in prior Roundup trials, testified at length on Monday, reiterating previous testimony that there is clear scientific evidence showing glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations such as Roundup can cause cancer.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has settled several other cases that were scheduled to go to trial over the last two years. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle about 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. Late last month, Bayer said it would set aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

Bayer also announced it would stop selling Roundup, and other herbicides made with the active ingredient glyphosate, to U.S. consumers by 2023. But the company continues to sell the products for use by farmers and commercial applicators.

Bayer gets lift in pre-trial ruling ahead of Roundup cancer trial

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A California judge gave Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG a pre-trial boost in a ruling issued Monday, a week before the scheduled start of a new courtroom challenge to the safety of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

Judge Gilbert Ochoa of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California agreed with Monsanto that federal law regarding pesticide regulation and labeling preempts “failure to warn” claims under state law, and the plaintiff in the trial set to start next week will not be allowed to pursue such claims.

“The Court grants Defendant Monsanto Motion for Summary Adjudication of the 2nd and 4th causes of action on the grounds the failure to warn or concealment of glyphosate’s link to cancer is expressly and/or impliedly preempted” by federal law, Ochoa wrote in his order.

The decision was “surprising” to plaintiff’s attorney Fletcher Trammell, who is representing plaintiff Donnetta Stephens in the case against Monsanto. “Obviously we disagree,” he said. The issue could be subject of appeal at some point, he added.

The claims that Monsanto made an unsafe product and knowingly pushed it into the marketplace remain intact and will be presented at trial, according to Trammell.

More Than Two Years

It’s been more than two years since Bayer has had to defend the safety of Monsanto’s weed killing products at a trial. Monsanto has lost three out of three previous trials, with a jury in the last trial ordering a staggering $2 billion in damages due to what the jury saw as egregious conduct by Monsanto in failing to warn users of evidence – including numerous scientific studies – showing a connection between its products and cancer.

Lawyers for Stephens, a regular user of Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years, will try to prove that exposure to the glyphosate-based products made popular by Monsanto caused Stephens to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

The case is set for trial Monday July 26, delayed by one week as the court deals with a variety of pre-trial motions.  Stephens was diagnosed with NHL in 2017 and has suffered from numerous health complications amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy since then. Because of her poor health,  a judge in December granted Stephens a trial “preference,” meaning her case was expedited, after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens is “in a perpetual state of pain,” and losing cognition and memory.

Several other cases have either already been granted preference trial dates or are seeking trial dates for other plaintiffs, including at least two children, suffering from NHL the plaintiffs allege was caused by exposure to Roundup products.

Monsanto was purchased by Bayer AG in 2018 and is no longer a stand-alone company but is the named defendant in ongoing litigation, which began in 2015 after cancer experts consulted by a unit of the World Health Organization determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to NHL.

Roughly 100,000 people in the United States have claimed they developed NHL because of their exposure to Roundup or other Monsanto-made glyphosate-based herbicides.

Preemption Argument

Bayer sees the preemption argument as critical to its ability to limit the ongoing litigation liability. The company has made it clear that it hopes at some point to get a U.S. Supreme Court finding that under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) position that Monsanto’s herbicides are not likely to cause cancer essentially bars complaints that Monsanto didn’t warn of any cancer risk.

Critics of that position point to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences, which established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law. Citing the law and the Bates precedent, more than a dozen federal and state courts have rejected the preemption argument.

But some legal experts argue the rejections of the preemption argument in the Roundup litigation are flawed and believe Bayer has a solid defense on that issue.

If Bayer can ultimately get a U.S. Supreme Court win on the preemption question, it could thwart the key claims brought by tens of thousands of plaintiffs and potentially save Bayer from significant ongoing legal liability costs.

In the first trial against Monsanto, a unanimous jury awarded plaintiff Dewayne Johnson $289 million; the plaintiff in the second trial was awarded $80 million; and the jury in the third trial awarded more than $2 billion to husband-and-wife plaintiffs. All the awards were reduced sharply by judges involved in the cases but the verdicts assigning blame to Monsanto for the cancers have not been overturned.

Bayer settlement

Bayer said last year that it had agreed to pay close to $11 billion to settle existing Roundup cancer claims, but many law firms have dismissed the individual offers for their clients as insufficient, and they continue to press for more trials.

Additionally, Bayer has thus far failed to get court approval for varying proposals to try to create a class action settlement program for people who bring cancer claims in the future. After a stinging rebuke of its plans by a federal judge overseeing much of the litigation, Bayer said it is considering pulling Roundup products from the U.S. market for residential users, though not from farm use.

The case is Stephens v. Monsanto CIVSB2104801 in the Superior Court of California – County of San Bernardino.