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.”