Appeals court focused on damages question ahead of Johnson v. Monsanto hearing

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A California appeals court looks poised to issue a ruling that would uphold the first U.S. trial victory involving allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer causes cancer.

The United States Court of Appeal First Appellate District on Wednesday notified lawyers for plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson and legal counsel for Monsanto that they should be prepared to focus on the question of damages awarded in the case at a hearing scheduled for June 2.

The fact that the court is showing it is interested in discussing what amount of damages are appropriate rather than issues pertaining to Monsanto’s request to overturn the trial loss entirely bodes well for the plaintiff’s side, said legal observers.

Monsanto August 2018 loss to Johnson, a California school groundskeeper, marked the first of three Roundup trial losses for the company, which was acquired by Germany’s Bayer AG nearly two years ago. The jury in the Johnson case found that Monsanto was negligent in failing to warn Johnson of the cancer risk of its herbicides and awarded Johnson $289 million in damages, including $250 million in punitive damages. The trial judge later lowered the award to $78.5 million. But the loss sent Bayer’s shares spirally lower and stoked investor unrest that has persisted as the number of additional Roundup cancer claims filed against Monsanto have grown.

In appealing the verdict, Monsanto asked the court to either reverse the trial decision and enter a judgment for Monsanto or reverse and remand the case for a new trial. Monsanto argued that the verdict was flawed because of exclusion of key evidence and the “distortion of reliable science.” If nothing else,  Monsanto asked the appeals court to reduce the portion of the jury award for “future noneconomic damages” from $33 million to $1.5 million and to wipe out the punitive damages altogether.  Monsanto’s argument on reducing future non-economic damages is based on the company’s position that Johnson is likely to die soon and thus will not suffer long-term future pain and suffering.

Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of the full jury award of $289 million.

Ahead of the hearing on the matter, the judicial panel said this: “The parties should be ready to address the following issue at oral argument, currently scheduled for June 2, 2020. Assume that this court agrees with Monsanto Company that the award of future noneconomic damages should be reduced. If the court directs such a reduction, should it also reduce the award of punitive damages to maintain the trial court’s 1:1 ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages?”

In a separate matter, the court last month said it was rejecting an application by the California Attorney General to file an amicus brief on Johnson’s side.

The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on questionable Monsanto conduct. Lawyers for Johnson presented jurors with internal company emails and other records showing Monsanto scientists discussing ghostwriting scientific papers to try to shore up support for the safety of the company’s products, along with communications detailing plans to discredit critics, and to quash a government evaluation of the toxicity of glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto’s products.

In its appeal, Monsanto argued that jurors were acting on emotion rather than scientific fact and “that there is no evidence that Monsanto had actual knowledge that its glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer. Nor could there be, when the scientific consensus, consistently accepted by EPA and other regulators around the world, contradicts that conclusion. It was not malicious for the regulators to reach this judgment, and it was not malicious for Monsanto to share their view of the science.”

Tens of thousands of plaintiffs have filed suit against Monsanto making claims similar to Johnson’s, and two additional trials have taken place since the Johnson trial. Both those trials also resulted in large verdicts against Monsanto.

Bayer and lawyers for more than 50,000 plaintiffs have been trying to negotiate a national settlement for the last year but Bayer recently backed away from some already negotiated settlement amounts. With courthouses closed around the country, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have lost the near-term leverage they had when multiple new trials were set to take place this summer and fall.

Bayer shareholder meeting draws protests, pleas from cancer patients

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The Bayer AG annual shareholders’ meeting got underway Tuesday in Germany, drawing the attention of not only investors and analysts but also activists, lawyers and cancer patients who want to see Bayer make amends for alleged misdeeds by Monsanto, which Bayer bought two years ago.

The meeting was to be an in-person event in Bonn, Germany but due to fears about large gatherings that could spread the Covid-19 virus, Bayer instead is hosting a video webcast  of the meeting.

On Monday the company announced a “good start to 2020,” reporting higher sales and profits through all divisions driven in part by strong demand within its Consumer Health division related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The shareholders’ meeting comes as Bayer is facing legal claims in the United States brought by roughly 52,500 plaintiffs alleging that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). They allege Monsanto was aware of the risks and should have warned consumers but instead sought to manipulate the scientific record and regulators.

Three trials have been held to date and Bayer lost all three as juries awarded more than $2 billion to four plaintiffs, though trial judges later reduced the awards. The trial losses angered investors and pushed share prices to the lowest levels in roughly seven years,  erasing more than 40 percent of Bayer’s market value at one point. Some investors called for Bayer CEO Werner Baumann to be ousted for championing the Monsanto acquisition, which closed in June of 2018 just as the first trial was getting underway.

Bayer and plaintiffs’ attorneys have been engaged in settlement talks for the last year and appeared close to a deal that would resolve a majority of the claims before the onset of Covid-19.

Virus-related government closures, including of U.S. courthouses, have eliminated the possibility of additional trials in the near future, and Bayer has seized on its fresh leverage to walk back some of its negotiated settlements, according to sources close to the talks.

Bayer said Monday it will “continue to consider a solution only if it is financially reasonable and puts in place a mechanism to resolve potential future claims efficiently. Against the background of a looming recession and looking at, in part, considerable liquidity challenges, this applies now more than ever.”

Despite the lack of an in-person meeting, several individuals and organizations are hoping to make their criticisms of the company known. One group representing beekeepers said it was running online ads redirecting people searching for Bayer AGM on Google to an online stream featuring beekeepers talking about the impacts of Bayer’s pesticides on bees.

Several people involved in the Roundup litigation also spoke out.

“It’s time for the Bayer board of directors to step up and do what is right,” said Thomas Bolger, a 68-year-old man from Texas who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013 after using Roundup since 1982. Bolger recorded a video message to Bayer, detailing his ordeal with cancer.

Robyndee Laumbach, a 50-year-old Texas woman who said her work in cotton genetics exposed her repeatedly to Roundup, also made a video message for Bayer. “Cancer is bad, any which way you look at it. I’m completely damaged and scarred and I will be for the remainder of my life,” she said.

Both Laumbach and Bolger are among the people suing Monsanto.

Roundup litigation plaintiff Michelle Taranto also made a video message on behalf of her husband to share with Bayer. Rose said her husband will soon be entering his third round of treatments “that will hopefully save his life.” She asked Bayer to stop selling Roundup.

“Our lives have been diminished to endless hospital visits, countless painful treatments and expensive scary hospital stays,” Taranto said.

Maine Christmas tree farm operator Jim Hayes made a video message describing being diagnosed with Stage 4 NHL in 2016 after using Roundup on his farm for years. Hayes said he went through six rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant before being declared in remission. He now fears his cancer will return.

“I love my life. I love my family. I trusted the product. Clearly it is not safe for everyone to use,” Hayes said.

One Roundup litigation plaintiff who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Chuck, also made a video message for Bayer.

“I believe Bayer should be doing everything in their power to fix the problem that Monsanto and their product Roundup has caused thousands of individuals like myself who thought we were just using a harmless weed killer,” he said. “Although my cancer is incurable, Bayer can prevent future people from developing this horrible disease by taking this product Roundup off the shelf now. Bayer should also be accountable for everyone that now has to deal with this horrible disease every day.”

Bayer said to be reneging on Roundup settlement deals as virus closes courthouses

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Bayer AG is reneging on negotiated settlements with several U.S. law firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who claim exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, sources involved in the litigation said on Friday.

The reversal comes as U.S. courts are closed to the public because of the spreading coronavirus, eliminating the specter of another Roundup cancer trial in the near future.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in June of 2018, has been engaged in settlement talks for close to a year, seeking to put an end to mass litigation that has driven down the company’s stock, spurred investor unrest, and thrust questionable corporate conduct into a public spotlight.  The first three trials led to three losses for Bayer and jury awards of more than $2 billion, though trial judges later reduced the awards.

Bayer made a public statement this week saying that settlement talks have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, but multiple plaintiffs’ lawyers said that was not true.

According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Bayer has been going back to law firms that had already completed negotiations for specified settlements for their clients, saying the company will not honor the agreed-upon amounts.

“A lot of lawyers around the country thought they had tentative deals,” said Virginia attorney Mike Miller, whose firm represents roughly 6,000 clients and won two of the three Roundup trials to date. Bayer is now demanding a “hair cut” on those deals, Miller said.

Whether or not the various firms will take the reduced offers remains to be seen.  “These are uncertain economic times,” Miller said. “People have to consider what’s best for their clients.”

In response to a request for comment, a Bayer spokesman provided the following statement: “We’ve made progress in the Roundup mediation discussions, but the COVID-19 dynamics, including restrictions imposed in recent weeks, have caused meeting cancellations and delayed this process…  As a result, the mediation process has significantly slowed, and realistically, we expect this will continue to be the case for the immediate future. During this time, we will continue to do whatever we can to help combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with our vision of ‘health for all, hunger for none.’ We cannot speculate about potential outcomes from the negotiations or timing, given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and the confidentiality of this process, but we remain committed to engaging in mediation in good faith.”

US Right to Know reported in early January that the parties were working on a settlement of roughly $8 billion to $10 billion. Bayer has acknowledged facing claims from more than 40,000 plaintiffs, but plaintiffs’ attorneys have said the total number of claims is much higher.

Among the firms who had negotiated settlements for their clients are the Andrus Wagstaff firm from Denver, Colorado and the Los Angeles firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman. Both reached agreements last year with Bayer.

In addition, the Weitz & Luxenberg firm from New York and Mike Miller’s firm recently reached what they thought were agreements on terms. Each of the firms represents thousands of plaintiffs.

The primary leverage plaintiffs’ attorneys had been using in the settlement negotiations was the threat of another public trial. In the first three trials, damning internal Monsanto documents laid bare evidence that the company knew of the cancer risks of its glyphosate-based herbicides but failed to warn consumers; ghost-wrote scientific papers proclaiming the safety of its herbicides; worked with certain regulatory officials to quash a government review of glyphosate toxicity; and engineered efforts to discredit critics.

The revelations have triggered outrage around the world and prompted moves to ban the glyphosate-based herbicides.

Several trials that were to have been held over the last several months were cancelled shortly before they were scheduled to begin when Bayer agreed to individual settlements for those specific trial plaintiffs. Two of those cases involved children stricken with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a third was brought by a woman suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Those plaintiffs, and others who have agreed to settlements in lieu of trials in recent months, are protected and are not part of the current rollback effort by Bayer, according to multiple sources involved.

Bayer is slated to hold its annual shareholders’ meeting on April 28. For the first time in the company’s history, the meeting will be held entirely online.

The first three plaintiffs to win jury awards against Monsanto have yet to receive any money as Bayer appeals the verdicts.

New legal filings over alleged Roundup dangers amid court coronavirus delays

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Even as the spread of the coronavirus closes courthouse doors to the public and lawyers, legal maneuvering continues over claims of danger associated with Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides.

Two nonprofit advocacy groups, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), filed an amicus brief on behalf of cancer patient Edwin Hardeman on March 23. Hardeman won a jury verdict against Monsanto of $80 million in March of 2019, becoming the second winning plaintiff in the Roundup litigation.  The trial judge reduced the jury award to a total of $25 million. Monsanto appealed the award nonetheless, asking an appellate court to overturn the verdict.

The new legal brief supporting Hardeman counters one filed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that backs Monsanto in the Hardeman appeal.

The CFS and CBD brief states that Monsanto and the EPA are both wrong to assert that the EPA’s approval of glyphosate herbicides preempts challenges to the safety of the products:

        “Contrary to Monsanto’s claims, Mr. Hardeman’s case is not preempted by EPA’s conclusion relative to glyphosate because Roundup is a glyphosate formulation that EPA has never evaluated for carcinogenicity. Moreover, significant flaws and biases undermined EPA’s evaluation of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity and the district court was correct in allowing testimony to that effect,” the brief states.

         “Monsanto wants this Court to believe that “glyphosate” is synonymous with ‘Roundup.’ The reason is simple: if the terms are interchangeable, then, they argue, EPA’s finding that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic” would apply to Roundup and might preempt Mr. Hardeman’s case. However as the evidence presented at trial demonstrated, “glyphosate” and “Roundup” are very much not synonymous, and Roundup is far more toxic than glyphosate.  Moreover, EPA has never evaluated Roundup for carcinogenicity. Glyphosate formulations, like Roundup, contain additional ingredients (co-formulants) to improve performance in some way. EPA understands these formulations are more toxic than glyphosate alone, yet nevertheless focused its cancer evaluation on pure glyphosate…”

Separate lawsuit names EPA 

In a separate legal action, last week the Center for Food Safety filed a federal lawsuit against the EPA over its continued support of glyphosate. The claim, made on behalf of a  coalition of farm workers, farmers, and conservationists, alleges the EPA is violating the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act as well as the Endangered Species Act by continuing to allow widespread use of glyphosate herbicides.

“While EPA defends glyphosate, juries in several cases have found it to cause cancer, ruling in favor of those impacted by exposure,” CFS said in a press release. “Glyphosate formulations like Roundup are also well-established as having numerous damaging environmental impacts. After a registration review process spanning over a decade, EPA allowed the continued marketing of the pesticide despite the agency’s failure to fully assess glyphosate’s hormone-disrupting potential or its effects on threatened and endangered species.”

Bill Freese, science policy analyst at CFS said: “Far from consulting the ‘best available science,’ as EPA claims, the agency has relied almost entirely on Monsanto studies, cherry-picking the data that suits its purpose and dismissing the rest.”

Virus-related court disruptions

Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG have been working to try to settle a large number of the tens of thousands of Roundup cancer claims brought in U.S. courts. That effort continues, and specific settlements have already been reached for some individual plaintiffs, according to sources involved in the talks. US Right to Know reported in early January that the parties were working on a settlement of roughly $8 billion to $10 billion.

However, many other cases continue to work their way through the court system, including the appeal of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the first plaintiff to win against Monsanto in the Roundup litigation. Johnson’s attorneys had hoped the California Court of Appeal would hold oral arguments in Monsanto’s appeal of Johnson’s win sometime in April. But that now appears extremely unlikely as other cases scheduled for March have now been pushed into April.

As well, all in-person sessions for oral arguments in the appeals court are currently suspended. Counsel who choose to present oral argument must do so over the telephone, the court states.

Meanwhile, courts in multiple California counties are closed and jury trials have been suspended to try to protect people from the spread of the virus. The federal court in San Francisco, where the multidistrict Roundup litigation is centralized, is closed to the public, including a suspension of trials, until May 1. Judges can still issue rulings, however, and hold hearings by teleconference.

In Missouri, where most of the state court Roundup cases are based, all in-person court proceedings (with a few exceptions) are suspended through April 17, according to a Missouri Supreme Court order. 

One Missouri case that had been set to go to trial in March 30 in St. Louis City Court now has a trial date set for April 27.  The case is Seitz v Monsanto #1722-CC11325.

In ordering the change, Judge Michael Mullen wrote: “DUE TO THE NATIONAL PANDEMIC OF THE COVID-19 VIRUS AND THE UNAVAILABILITY OF JURORS IN THIS CIRCUIT THE COURT HEREBY REMOVES THIS CASE FROM THE MARCH 30, 2020 TRIAL DOCKET. CAUSE IS RESET FOR A TRIAL SETTING CONFERENCE ON MONDAY, APRIL 27, 2020 @ 9:00 AM.”

Shareholder files suit against Bayer over “disastrous” Monsanto acquisition

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A California shareholder of Bayer AG on Friday filed a lawsuit against the companies’ top executives claiming they breached their duty of “prudence” and “loyalty” to the company and investors by buying Monsanto Co. in 2018, an acquisition the suit claims has “inflicted billions of dollars of damages” on the company.

Plaintiff Rebecca R. Haussmann, trustee of the Konstantin S. Haussmann Trust, is the sole named plaintiff in the suit, which was filed in New York County Supreme Court.  The named defendants include Bayer CEO Werner Baumann, who orchestrated the $63 billion Monsanto purchase, and Bayer Chairman Werner Wenning, who announced last month he was stepping down from the company earlier than planned. The suit claims that Wenning’s decision came after Bayer improperly obtained a copy of the then-draft shareholder lawsuit “through corporate espionage.”

The lawsuit also claims that Bayer’s recent announcement of an audit of its acquisition actions is “bogus” and “part of the ongoing cover-up and intended to create a legal barrier to this case to protect Defendants from their accountability…”

The action is a shareholder derivative complaint, meaning it is brought on behalf of the company against company insiders. It seeks compensatory damages for shareholders and disgorgement of “all compensation paid to the Bayer Managers and Supervisors who participated in bringing about this Acquisition…” The suit also seeks return of funds paid to banks and law firms involved in the acquisition.

The defendants include not only Baumann and Wenning, but also some present and former Bayer directors and top managers, as well as BOFA Securities, Inc., Bank of America, Credit Suisse Group AG and the law firms of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP and Linklaters LLP.

A Bayer spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit comes a little more than a month before Bayer’s April 28 annual shareholders’ meeting in Bonn, Germany.  At last year’s annual meeting, 55 percent of shareholders registered their unhappiness with Baumann and other managers over the Monsanto deal and the subsequent loss of roughly $40 billion in market value.

Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto has been clouded by tens of thousands of lawsuits alleging Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company deceived customers about the risks. Bayer proceeded with the acquisition even after the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with a positive association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and despite knowledge of the spreading legal claims.

Bayer then completed the Monsanto purchase just two months before the first Roundup cancer trial ended with a $289 million verdict against the company. Since that time two more trials have ended in similar findings against the company with verdicts totaling more than $2 billion, though the trial judges in each case have lowered the verdicts. All are now on appeal.

Bayer has said there are more than 45,000 plaintiffs currently making similar claims. The company has been working to settle the lawsuits for a figure widely reported to be around $10 billion but has thus far not been successful in putting an end to the litigation.

The lawsuit claims that during 2017 and 2018, as the filing of new Roundup cancer lawsuits was escalating, the ability of Bayer management to conduct due diligence into Monsanto and the litigation risks was “severely restricted.” As a result, “Bayer could not conduct the kind of intrusive and thorough due diligence into Monsanto’s business and legal affairs called for under the circumstances.”

The suit claims that Monsanto did not disclose a material risk from Roundup and failed to quantify any potential financial impact. Monsanto’s executives “had every incentive to minimize the Roundup risk in order to get Bayer to close the deal,” the lawsuit states.

The shareholder lawsuit claims that “these types of mass-tort cases… can destroy a company.”

The lawsuit points to the fact that Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides are now being restricted and/or banned in many parts of the world, including in Germany.

“The Monsanto Acquisition is a disaster. Roundup is doomed as a commercial product,” the lawsuit states.

Settlement in Monsanto Roundup cancer litigation complicated by hold-out attorney

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What will it take to get Mike Miller to settle? That is the pressing question as one of the lead lawyers in the nationwide Roundup cancer litigation has thus far refused to align with fellow litigators in agreeing to settle cases on behalf of thousands of cancer patients who claim their diseases were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s herbicide products.

Mike Miller, head of the Orange, Virginia-based law firm that bears his name, has been unwilling to accept the terms of settlement offers discussed in mediation talks between Monsanto’s German owner Bayer AG and a team of plaintiffs’ attorneys. That recalcitrance is a critical sticking point that is interfering with a resolution, sources close to the litigation say.

Instead, Miller’s firm is launching two new trials this month, including one that started today in Contra Costa, California, and one that starts Tuesday in St. Louis, Missouri. It is possible that Miller could agree to a settlement at any point, interrupting trial proceedings, however. Miller also has a trial set for February in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. That case, brought by cancer patient Elaine Stevick, would be the second trial to be held in federal court.

Miller’s move to continue to try cases separates him from other leading Roundup plaintiffs’ firms, including the Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman law firm of Los Angeles and the Denver, Colorado-based Andrus Wagstaff firm. Like the Miller firm, Baum Hedlund and Andrus Wagstaff represent several thousands plaintiffs.

Those firms have agreed to cancel or postpone multiple trials, including two that involved young children with cancer, in order to facilitate a settlement.

Some sources have pegged a potential settlement number at $8 billion-$10 billion, though some analysts have said that number would be hard to justify to Bayer investors, who are keeping a close eye on the developments.

Critics accuse Miller of acting in a way that could hurt the ability of thousands of plaintiffs to obtain payouts from Bayer, but supporters say he is championing his clients’ interests and refusing to accept terms he finds less than optimal. Miller is a veteran litigator who has a long history of taking on large companies, including pharmaceutical giants, over alleged product-related consumer injuries.

Mediator Ken Feinberg said it was unclear if there could be a global settlement achieved without Miller.

“Mike Miller has a view of what his cases are worth and is seeking what he thinks is appropriate compensation,” said Feinberg.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria appointed Feinberg to act as a mediator between Bayer and the plaintiffs’ attorneys last May.

Monsanto has lost all three of the trials held so far. The Miller Firm handled two of those trials – bringing in Baum Hedlund lawyers to help with the case of  Dewayne “Lee” Johnson (after Mike Miller was severely injured in an accident just prior to trial) and also with the case of husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.  Johnson was awarded $289 million and the Pilliods were awarded more than $2 billion though the trial judges in each case lowered the awards. The other trial that has thus far taken place, on claims brought by Edwin Hardeman, was handled by the Andrus Wagstaff firm and attorney Jennifer Moore.

Miller’s bid to push new trials carries several risks, including the fact that Monsanto could prevail in one or more of the cases, which could provide leverage to Bayer in settlement talks. Conversely, though, if Miller were to win the trials that could offer fresh leverage for the plaintiffs to ask for more money.

The pressure to settle has been ratcheting higher for both sides.  Complicating factors include a ballooning of the number of plaintiffs’ signed by law firms around the United States amid the publicity of a possible settlement. Some media reports have pegged the total number of plaintiffs at 80,000 while some sources have said the number is well over 100,000. A large part of that number, however, reflects plaintiffs that are signed but have not filed actions in court, and some who have filed but do not have  trial dates. Any settlement now would represent a large percentage of plaintiffs, but not likely all, sources said.

All the cases allege that the cancers were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, including the widely used Roundup brand. And all allege Monsanto knew about, and covered up, the risks.

Among the evidence that has emerged through the litigation are internal Monsanto documents showing the company engineered the publishing of scientific papers that falsely appeared to be created solely by independent scientists; the funding of, and collaborating with, front groups that were used to try to discredit scientists reporting harm with Monsanto’s herbicides; and collaborations with certain officials inside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect and promote Monsanto’s position that its products were not cancer-causing.

In the California trial that started today, Kathleen Caballero alleges that she developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after spraying Roundup from 1977 to 2018 as part of her work at a gardening and landscaping business, and in her operation of a farm.

In the trial set to start Tuesday in St. Louis, there are four plaintiffs- Christopher Wade, Glen Ashelman, Bryce Batiste and Ann Meeks.

A third trial is also set for this month in Riverside County Superior Court. That case was brought by Treesa Cotton, a woman who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015 that she blames on exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup.

St. Louis Monsanto Roundup Trial Postponed, Bayer stock climbs

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A highly anticipated Roundup cancer trial set to start later this month in the St. Louis area has been pulled from the docket, a court official said on Wednesday.

The trial, which was to pit a woman named Sharlean Gordon against Roundup maker Monsanto Co., was to start Jan. 27 in St. Louis County and was to be broadcast to the public. Notably, Gordon’s lawyers planned to put former Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant on the stand. St. Louis was the home of Monsanto’s corporate headquarters until the company was purchased by Bayer AG of Germany in June of 2018.

In taking the trial off the calendar, the judge in the case has ordered that a status conference be set for a month from now, said St. Louis County Court spokeswoman Christine Bertelson.

The Gordon trial was already postponed once – it originally was scheduled for August. It is one of several trials that have been postponed in the last several months as Bayer attempts to find a settlement to the mass of claims filed against Monsanto by people stricken with non-Hodgkin lymphoma they claim was caused by exposure to Monsanto Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides. Bayer officials have said that Monsanto is facing more than 42,700 plaintiffs in the United States.

Gordon developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup herbicides for 25 years at her residence in South Pekin, Illinois, and has suffered extensive debilitation due to her disease. 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 was to be the first of that group to go to trial.

Monsanto and Bayer have denied that Monsanto’s herbicides can cause cancer, and assert the litigation is without merit but is being fueled by greedy plaintiffs’ attorneys.

According to sources close to the litigation, discussions are underway to postpone more Roundup cancer trials, possibly including one set to start January 21 in St. Louis City Court. Attorneys for Monsanto and for the plaintiffs in the upcoming January trials declined to comment.

Shares in Bayer hit a 52-week high and were up close to 3 percent Wednesday. Investors have been pushing the company to find a way to avoid future trials and to settle the litigation.

In the three Roundup cancer trials held so far, unanimous juries have found that exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides does cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company covered up the risks and failed to warn consumers. The three juries awarded a total of four plaintiffs more than $2 billion in damages, but the trial judges in each case have reduced the awards significantly.

No damages have yet been paid as Monsanto appeals the verdicts.

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.

Attorney for Roundup Cancer Plaintiffs Arrested on Criminal Charges

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The legal drama surrounding the mass tort Roundup cancer litigation just got ratcheted up a notch.

Federal criminal charges were filed this week against attorney Timothy Litzenburg alleging the 37-year-old lawyer demanded $200 million in “consulting fees” in exchange for keeping quiet about information that he threatened would be potentially devastating to a chemical compound supplier to Monsanto.

Litzenburg was charged with one count each of attempted extortion, conspiracy and transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort. He was arrested Tuesday but has been released on bond.

Litzenburg was the attorney for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson leading up to Johnson’s 2018 trial against Monsanto, which resulted in a $289 million jury award in Johnson’s favor. The trial was the first of three that have taken place against Monsanto over allegations that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Monsanto, and its German owner Bayer AG, have lost all three trials to date but are appealing the verdicts.

Though Litzenburg had been responsible for preparing Johnson for trial, he was not allowed to participate during the actual event because of concerns about his behavior held by The Miller Firm, which was his employer at the time.

The Miller firm subsequently fired Litzenburg and filed a lawsuit alleging Litzenburg engaged in self-dealing, and “disloyal and erratic conduct.” Litzenburg responded with a counter-claim. The parties recently negotiated a confidential settlement.

The new trouble for Litzenburg came in the form of a criminal complaint filed Monday in federal court in Virginia. The complaint does not name the company Litzenburg was demanding money from, referring  to it as “Company 1.”  According to the charges, Litzenburg contacted Company 1 in September of this year stating that he was preparing a lawsuit that would allege Company 1 and related companies supplied chemical compounds used by Monsanto to create its branded Roundup herbicide and that Company 1 knew the ingredients were carcinogenic but had failed to warn the public. He also attempted to involve an entity referred to in the complaint as Company 2, described by prosecutors as a U.S.  publicly traded company that bought Company 1 in 2018.

Earlier this year Litzenburg  told US Right to Know that he was drafting such a complaint against chemical supplier Huntsman International  and related entities, but it is not clear if Huntsman is involved in this action.

Litzenburg, who is now a partner with the firm of Kincheloe, Litzenburg & Pendleton, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did his law partner Dan Kincheloe.  Litzenburg has claimed to be representing roughly 1,000 clients suing Monsanto over Roundup cancer causation allegations.

According to the complaint, Litzenburg told a lawyer for Company 1 that he believed if he filed an initial lawsuit many more would follow. To prevent that, Company 1 could enter into a “consulting arrangement” with Litzenburg, the lawyer allegedly told the company. As a consultant Litzenburg would have a conflict of interest that would prevent him from filing the threatened litigation.

According to information the complaint states was provided by an attorney for Company 1, Litzenburg said he would need a $5 million settlement of the drafted lawsuit and a consulting arrangement for $200 million for himself and an associate.  The criminal complaint states that Litzenburg put the terms of his demand in writing in an email to the company attorney, warning that if the company did not comply, Litzenburg would create “Roundup Two,” which would cause “an ongoing and exponentially growing problem” for Company 1.

Litzenburg wrote in the email that the $200 million consulting agreement for himself and an associate was “a very reasonable price,” according to the criminal complaint. At least two such “associates” were involved in the scheme, according to the complaint.

The attorney for Company 1 contacted the U.S. Department of Justice in October and investigators subsequently recorded a phone call with Litzenburg discussing the $200 million he was seeking, the complaint states.

According to the complaint, Litzenburg was recorded as saying: “The way that I guess you guys will think about it and we’ve thought about it too is savings for your side. I don’t think if this gets filed and turns into mass tort, even if you guys win cases and drive value down… I don’t think there’s any way you get out of it for less than a billion dollars. And so, you know, to me, uh, this is a fire sale price that you guys should consider…”

During other communications with Company 1, Litzenburg allegedly said that if he received the $200 million, he was willing to “take a dive” during a civil deposition of a Company 1 toxicologist to undermine the prospects for future plaintiffs to try to sue the company.

If Company 1 entered into a deal with him, Litzenburg allegedly said, it would mean Company 1 would “avoid the parade of horribles that has been the Roundup litigation for Bayer/Monsanto.”

Prosecuting the case for the U.S. Department of Justice are Assistant Chief L. Rush Atkinson and Principal Assistant Chief Henry P. Van Dyck of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.

Six Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trials Set for January

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After several months out of the headlines, lawyers for both sides of the nationwide Roundup cancer litigation are gearing up for overlapping trials in the new year as several more cancer patients seek to blame Monsanto for their diseases.

Six trials are currently set to take place starting in January, with one in February, two in March and additional trials scheduled almost every month from April through October 2021. Thousands of additional plaintiffs still are working to get trial dates set for their claims.

The plaintiffs in the upcoming January trials include two children who were stricken by non-Hodgkin lymphoma allegedly after being repeatedly exposed to Monsanto herbicides at very young ages. Also set for January is the trial for a woman named Sharlean Gordon who has suffered several debilitating recurrences of her cancer. Another trial will present the claims of five plaintiffs who claim Monsanto’s herbicides caused their cancers.

Notably, two of the trials in January will take place in the St. Louis, Missouri area – where Monsanto was headquartered for decades before its acquisition in June 2018 by Germany’s Bayer AG. Those two trials will be the first to go before jurors in Monsanto’s home town. Gordon’s case was supposed to go to trial in the area last August but was postponed, as were others set for the second half of 2019, as Bayer and plaintiffs’ attorneys initiated settlement talks.

It is still possible that some sort of settlement – individual case-specific, or larger – could happen before January, but the lawyers on both sides are preparing for a schedule that presents numerous logistical challenges. Each trial is expected to last several weeks, and not only are some lawyers involved in trying cases with overlapping trial schedules, but a small group of expert witnesses will be testifying in multiple cases taking place at the same time.

Three trials have taken place so far  in the sprawling mass tort litigation, which began in 2015 after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified a chemical called glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Since the 1970s, glyphosate has been the active ingredient in Monsanto branded herbicides, and is currently considered the most widely used herbicide in the world.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say that the current line-up of cases represent even stronger claims for damages than the prior three trials.  “These are very strong cases,” said lawyer Aimee Wagstaff, who represents Gordon. In March, Wagstaff client Edwin Hardeman won an $80 million jury verdict from a San Francisco jury in his lawsuit against Monsanto.

For the Gordon case, Wagstaff has subpoenaed former Monsanto chairman Hugh Grant to testify live at the trial. Grant has thus far only testified through deposition and not had to testify in front of a jury; nor have other high-level Monsanto executives because the trials were held in California. But with the trial in St. Louis, plaintiffs’ lawyers are hoping to get some Monsanto scientists and executives on the stand for questioning. Grant’s attorneys have objected the making him appear in person, and both sides are awaiting a ruling on that matter.

In the most recent trial to take place, a jury in Oakland, California ordered Monsanto to pay more than $2 billion in damages to Alberta and Alva Pilliod, a married couple who both suffer from NHL they blame on exposure to Roundup.  The first trial ended in August 2018 when jurors in state court in San Francisco ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million  in damages to school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, who has been diagnosed with a terminal type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  The judges in all three of those cases ruled that the awards were excessive and reduced the damage amounts, though the verdicts are currently under appeal.

More than 42,000 people  in the United States are now suing Monsanto claiming that Roundup and other Monsanto’s herbicides cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The lawsuits allege that the company was well aware of the dangers for many years but did nothing to warn consumers, working instead to manipulate the scientific record to protect company sales.

Internal FDA Emails: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers

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This article was originally published in the Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

US government scientists have detected a weedkiller linked to cancer in an array of commonly consumed foods, emails obtained through a freedom of information request show.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing food samples for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in hundreds of widely used herbicide products, for two years, but has not yet released any official results.

But the internal documents obtained by the Guardian show the FDA has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.

“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist Richard Thompson wrote to colleagues in an email last year regarding glyphosate. Thompson, who is based in an FDA regional laboratory in Arkansas, wrote that broccoli was the only food he had “on hand” that he found to be glyphosate-free.

That internal FDA email, dated January 2017, is part of a string of FDA communications that detail agency efforts to ascertain how much of the popular weedkiller is showing up in American food. The tests mark the agency’s first-ever such examination.

“People care about what contaminants are in their food. If there is scientific information about these residues in the food, the FDA should release it,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “It helps people make informed decisions. Taxpayers paid for the government to do this work, they should get to see the information.”

The FDA is charged with annually testing food samples for pesticide residues to monitor for illegally high residue levels. The fact that the agency only recently started testing for glyphosate, a chemical that has been used for over 40 years in food production, has led to criticism from consumer groups and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Calls for testing grew after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

Glyphosate is best known as the main ingredient in Monsanto Co’s Roundup brand. More than 200m pounds are used annually by US farmers on their fields. The weedkiller is sprayed directly over some crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Many farmers also use it on fields before the growing season, including spinach growers and almond producers.

Thompson’s detection of glyphosate was made as he was validating his analytical methods, meaning those residues will probably not be included in any official report.

Separately, FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem found “over-the-tolerance” levels of glyphosate in corn, detected at 6.5 parts per million, an FDA email states. The legal limit is 5.0 ppm. An illegal level would normally be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but an FDA supervisor wrote to an EPA official that the corn was not considered an “official sample”.

When asked about the emails and the agency’s testing, an FDA spokesman said only that the FDA had not found any illegal levels in corn, soy, milk or eggs, the four commodities it considers part of its glyphosate “special assignment”. He did not address the unofficial findings revealed in the emails.

The FDA’s official findings should be released later this year or early in 2019 as part of its 2016 annual residue report. The reports typically are released two to two and a half years after the data is collected.

Along with glyphosate, the agency has been trying to measure residues of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba because of projected increased use of these weedkillers on new genetically engineered crops. The FDA spokesman said that the agency has “expanded capacity” for testing foods for those herbicides this year.

Other findings detailed in the FDA documents show that in 2016 Chamkasem found glyphosate in numerous samples of honey. Chamkasem also found glyphosate in oatmeal products. The FDA temporarily suspended testing after those findings, and Chamkasem’s lab was “reassigned to other programs”, the FDA documents show. The FDA has said those tests were not part of its official glyphosate residue assignment.

Pesticide exposure through diet is considered a potential health risk. Regulators, Monsanto and agrochemical industry interests say pesticide residues in food are not harmful if they are under legal limits. But many scientists dispute that, saying prolonged dietary exposure to combinations of pesticides can be harmful.

Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who is director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), said that current regulatory analysis of pesticide dangers does not account for low levels of dietary exposures.

“Even with low levels of pesticides, we’re exposed to so many and we don’t count the fact that we have cumulative exposures,” Birnbaum said.

The US Department of Agriculture was to start its own testing of foods for glyphosate residues in 2017 but dropped the plan.

The lack of government residue data comes as Monsanto attempts to bar evidence about glyphosate food residues from being introduced in court where the company is fighting off allegations its Roundup products cause cancer.

In a case set for trial on 18 June, San Francisco superior court judge Curtis Karnow recently denied the company’s motion to keep the jury from hearing about residues in food. The judge said that although Monsanto worries the information “will inflame the jury against Monsanto based on their own fear that they may have been exposed”, such information “should not be excluded”.