Challenge eyed to class action plan for Bayer Roundup settlement

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A plan to delay any new Roundup cancer claims for years and shift the key question of whether or not the weed killer causes cancer from a jury to a hand-picked panel of scientists faces potential opposition from some of the plaintiffs’ attorneys who initiated and led the mass tort claims against Roundup maker Monsanto, sources close to the litigation said.

Several members of the lead law firms who won three out of three trials pitting cancer patients against Monsanto are considering challenging the terms of a proposed “class action” settlement negotiated between Monsanto owner Bayer AG and a small team of  lawyers who have not previously been at the forefront of the Roundup litigation, the sources said.

The class action settlement proposal is an element of the sweeping $10 billion Roundup litigation settlement Bayer announced June 24.

In each of the trials held to date, juries found that the weight of scientific evidence proved that Roundup exposure caused the plaintiffs to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and that Monsanto covered up the risks. But under the proposal that question would go to a five-member “science panel,” not a jury.

“It’s basically depriving a plaintiff of their constitutional right to a jury trial,” said one source close to the litigation.

The proposed class settlement would apply to anyone exposed to Roundup who had not filed a lawsuit or retained a lawyer as of June 24, 2020, regardless of whether or not that person already had been diagnosed with cancer they believe was due to Roundup exposure.

The plan was put together by Bayer and the law firms of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; Audet & Partners; The Dugan Law Firm; and lawyer Samuel Issacharoff, Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law.

The agreement was reached after nearly one year of “unrelenting efforts” of negotiations, lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser said in a declaration to the court supporting the proposed class settlement.

It would set a “standstill period” in which plaintiffs in the class cannot file new litigation related to Roundup. And it calls for class members to release “any claims against Monsanto for punitive damages and for medical monitoring related to Roundup exposure and NHL.”

Notably, the plan states that rather than go forward with another jury trial, a panel of scientists will first be set up to determine the “right answer” to “the threshold question” of whether or not there is a causal link between Roundup and NHL.

The plan calls for Bayer to pay up to $150 million for the fees and costs of the attorneys’ involved and “class representative service awards” up to $25,000 to each or a total of $100,000.

Overall, Bayer said it would set aside $1.25 billion for the arrangement. The money would be used to compensate class members diagnosed with NHL for the “effects of the delay” in litigation, and to fund research into the diagnosis and treatment of NHL, among other things.

A motion seeking preliminary approval of the class settlement was filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to be handled by Judge Vince Chhabria. Chhabria has been overseeing numerous Roundup lawsuits that have been bundled together as multidistrict litigation. In shepherding a large number of the lawsuits already filed, Chhabria oversaw one of the Roundup trials, as well as what is known as a “Daubert” hearing, in which he heard days of scientific testimony from both sides and then decided there was sufficient scientific evidence of causation for the litigation to proceed.

The class settlement proposal was negotiated separately from the main settlement made with the lead law firms.

In the main settlement, Bayer agreed to provide $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve roughly 75 percent of the roughly 125,000 filed and unfiled claims brought by plaintiffs who blame exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup for their development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  Lawyers representing more than 20,000 additional plaintiffs say they have not agreed to settle with Bayer and those lawsuits are expected to continue to work their way through the court system.

Even though Monsanto lost each of the three trials held to date, Bayer maintain the jury decisions were flawed and based on emotion and not sound science.

Science Panel Selection

Bayer and the lawyers for the proposed class would work together to select the five scientists to sit on what would be a “neutral, independent” panel, according to the plan.  If they cannot agree on the make-up of the panel then each side will choose two members and those four members will choose the fifth.

No scientist who acted as an expert in the federal multidistrict Roundup litigation will be allowed to be on the panel. Notably, neither will anyone who “communicated with any expert” in the litigation about the subject matter.

The panel would have four years to review scientific evidence but can petition for an extension of time if necessary. The determination would be binding on both sides, the plan states. If the panel determines there is a causal link between Roundup and NHL, plaintiffs can go forward to seek trials of their individual claims.

“Knowledge is power and this Settlement empowers class members to hold Monsanto accountable for their injuries if and when the Science Panel determines that general causation is satisfied,” the plan states.

The filing with the federal court requests a preliminary approval hearing within 30 days.

Bayer settles U.S. Roundup, dicamba and PCB litigation for more than $10 billion

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In an expensive clean-up of Monsanto litigation messes, Bayer AG said Wednesday that it will pay out more than $10 billion to settle tens of thousands of U.S. claims brought against Monsanto over its Roundup herbicide, as well as $400 million to resolve lawsuits over Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide and $650 million for PCB pollution claims.

The resolutions come two years after Bayer bought Monsanto for $63 billion and almost immediately saw share prices plummet due to the Roundup liability.

Bayer announced that it will pay $10.1 billion to $10.9 billion total to resolve roughly 75 percent of the claims by an estimated 125,000 people who allege exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weed killers caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The deal includes plaintiffs who have retained attorneys with the intent to sue but whose cases have not yet been filed, Bayer said.  Within that total, a payment of $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion will resolve the current litigation and $1.25 billion is being set aside to support potential future litigation, the company said.

The plaintiffs included in the settlement are those signed with the law firms that have been leading the Roundup federal multi-district litigation (MDL) and include The Miller Firm of Virginia, the Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman firm of Los Angeles and the Andrus Wagstaff firm of Denver, Colorado.

“After years of hard fought litigation and a year of intense mediation I am glad to see our clients will now be compensated,” said Mike Miller, of the Miller law firm.

The Miller firm and the Baum Hedlund firm worked together to win the first case to go to trial, that of California groundskeeper Anthony “Lee” Johnson. Andrus Wagstaff won the second trial and The Miller Firm won the third case to go to trial. In all, the three trials resulted in jury verdicts totaling more than $2.3 billion, though the trial judges in each case lowered the verdicts.

The juries in all three trials found that Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides, such as Roundup, caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto covered up the risks and failed to warns users.

Each of the three trial verdicts are going through the appeals process now and Bayer said the plaintiffs in those cases are not included in the settlement.

Bayer said future Roundup claims will be part of a class agreement subject to approval by Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, who ordered the year-long mediation process that led to the settlement.

The agreement would take any future findings on cancer claims out of the hands of  juries, Bayer said. Instead, there will be the creation of an independent “Class Science Panel.” The Class Science Panel will determine whether Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and if so, at what minimum exposure levels.  Both the plaintiffs in the class action and Bayer will be bound by the Class Science Panel’s determination.  If the Class Science Panel determines there is no causal connection between Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma then the class members will be barred from claiming otherwise in any future litigation against Bayer.

Bayer said the Class Science Panel’s determination is expected to take several years and class members will not be permitted to proceed with Roundup claims prior to that determination. They also cannot seek punitive damages, Bayer said.

“The Roundup™ agreements are designed as a constructive and reasonable resolution to a unique litigation,” said Kenneth R. Feinberg, the court-appointed mediator for the settlement talks.

Even as they announced the settlement, Bayer officials continued to deny Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides cause cancer.

“The extensive body of science indicates that Roundup does not cause cancer, and therefore, is not responsible for the illnesses alleged in this litigation,” Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said in a statement.

Dicamba Deal

Bayer also announced a mass tort agreement to settle U.S. dicamba drift litigation, which involves claims from farmers that use of dicamba herbicides developed by Monsanto and BASF to be sprayed over dicamba-tolerant crops developed by Monsanto caused widespread crop loss and injury.

In a trial earlier this year, Monsanto was ordered to pay $265 million to a Missouri peach farmer for dicamba drift damage to his orchard.

More than 100 other farmers have made similar legal claims. Bayer said it will pay up to a total of $400 million to resolve the multi-district dicamba litigation that is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, with claims for the 2015-2020 crop years. Claimants will be required to provide proof of damage to crop yields and evidence that it was due to dicamba in order to collect. The company expects a contribution from its co-defendant, BASF, towards this settlement.

The settlement will provide “much-needed resources for farmers” who have suffered crop losses due to drifting dicamba herbicides, said lawyer Joseph Peiffer of the Peiffer Wolf law firm, which represents farmers with dicamba claims.

“The settlement announced today is an important step to making things right for the farmers who just want to be able to put food on the table of America and the world,” Peiffer said.

Earlier this month a federal court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had violated the law when it approved dicamba herbicides made by Monsanto, BASF and Corteva Agriscience. The court found the EPA ignored the risks of dicamba damage.

PCB Pollution Settlement 

Bayer also announced a series of agreements that resolve cases the company said represent most of its  exposure to litigation involving water contamination by PCBs, which Monsanto manufactured until  1977. One agreement establishes a class that includes all local governments with EPA permits involving water discharges impaired by PCBs. Bayer said it will pay a total of approximately $650 million to the class, which will be subject to court approval.

Additionally, Bayer said it has entered into separate agreements with the Attorneys-General of New Mexico, Washington, and the District of Columbia to resolve PCB claims. For these agreements, which are separate from the class, Bayer will make payments totally approximately $170 million.

Bayer said the potential cash outflow will not exceed $5 billion in 2020 and $5 billion in 2021 with the remaining balance to be paid in 2022 or later.

Roundup cancer attorney pleads guilty to extortion attempt

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A Virginia lawyer who helped represent the first Roundup cancer plaintiff to take Monsanto to trial pleaded guilty on Friday to trying to extort $200 million from a chemical compound supplier to Monsanto.

Timothy Litzenburg, 38, admitted to a scheme in which he and another lawyer threatened to inflict substantial “financial and reputational harm” on the supplier unless that company paid the two attorneys $200 million disguised as a “consulting agreement.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Litzenburg allegedly told the company that if they paid the money, he was willing to “take a dive” during a deposition, intentionally undermining the prospects for future plaintiffs to try to sue.

Litzenburg was charged with one count each of attempted extortion, conspiracy and transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort. He pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort.

Lawyer Daniel Kincheloe, 41, pleaded guilty to the same charge for participating in the scheme.  The men are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

“This is a case where two attorneys blew well past the line of aggressive advocacy and crossed deep into the territory of illegal extortion, in a brazen attempt to enrich themselves by extracting millions of dollars from a multinational company,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski said in a statement. He said that the plea shows that “when crimes are committed, members of the bar, like all members of the public, will be held accountable for their actions.”

Litzenburg was one of the attorneys 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 judge in the case lowered the verdict and the case is currently under appeal.)

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 helped prepare 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 in early 2019 alleging Litzenburg engaged in self-dealing, and “disloyal and erratic conduct.” Litzenburg responded with a counter-claim. The parties  negotiated a confidential settlement.

The criminal complaint against Litzenburg did not name the company Litzenburg tried to extort, but said that he contacted the company in September of  2019 year stating that he was preparing a lawsuit that would allege the company supplied chemical compounds used by Monsanto to create Roundup and that the company knew the ingredients were carcinogenic but had failed to warn the public.

According to the federal charges, Litzenburg told a lawyer for the company he was trying to extort that the company should enter into a “consulting arrangement” with him so as to create a  conflict of interest that would prevent him from filing the threatened litigation.

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.

Federal investigators recorded a phone call with Litzenburg discussing the $200 million he was seeking, the complaint states. Litzenburg was allegedly 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…”

Litzenburg claimed to be representing roughly 1,000 clients suing Monsanto over Roundup cancer causation allegations at the time of his arrest last year.

Appeals court hears arguments over Monsanto’s first Roundup trial loss

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A California jury decision blaming a Monsanto herbicide for a school groundskeeper’s cancer was deeply flawed and incompatible with the law, a Monsanto attorney told a panel of appellate judges on Tuesday.

The company’s glyphosate-based herbicides – popularly known as Roundup – have the full backing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “regulators around the world,” attorney David Axelrad told judges with the California Court of Appeal First Appellate District.

Axelrad said Monsanto had no duty to warn anyone about an alleged cancer risk given the regulatory consensus that its weed killers are safe.

It is “fundamentally unfair to hold Monsanto liable and punish it for a product label that accurately reflects not only EPA determination but a worldwide consensus that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” he argued in the hour-long hearing. The proceeding was held by telephone because of COVID-19 restrictions on courthouse access.

Associate Justice Gabriel Sanchez questioned the validity of that argument:  “You have animal studies… mechanism studies, you have control case studies,” he said, addressing Monsanto’s attorney. “There are a  number of, it seems, published peer reviewed studies… that suggest a statistically significant relationship between glyphosate and lymphoma. So I don’t know that I would agree with you that it has unanimous consensus. Certainly the regulatory agencies seem to be on one side. But there is a lot of other evidence on the other. ”

The appeal stems from the 2018 jury decision in San Francisco Superior Court that ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, including $250 million in punitive damages.

The trial judge in the Johnson case lowered the award to $78.5 million. But Monsanto appealed the verdict, asking the court to either reverse the trial decision and enter a judgment for Monsanto or reverse and remand the case for a new trial or at least sharply reduce the damages.  Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of the full jury award.

Johnson is one of tens of thousands of people from around the United States who have sued Monsanto alleging Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by the company cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company spent decades covering up the risks.

Johnson gained “preference” status because doctors said his life expectancy was short and that he would likely die within 18 months of the trial. Johnson has confounded the doctors and remains alive and undergoing regular treatments.

Monsanto’s loss to Johnson marked the first of three Roundup trial losses for the company, which was acquired by Germany’s Bayer AG in June 2018 just as the Johnson trial started.

The jury in the Johnson case specifically found – among other things – that Monsanto was negligent in failing to warn Johnson of the cancer risk of its herbicides. But Monsanto argues that the verdict was flawed because of exclusion of key evidence and what the company’s attorneys call the “distortion of reliable science.”

If the appeals court does not order a new trial, Monsanto asked that the judges at least 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.

Johnson’s trial attorneys had argued that he should get $1 million a year for pain and suffering over the 33 additional years that he would likely live if he had not gotten cancer.

But Monsanto’s attorneys have said Johnson should get only $1 million a year for pain and suffering during his actual life expectancy or $1.5 million for an 18-month expected future span.

On Tuesday, Axelrad reiterated that point: “Sure a plaintiff can recover during his lifetime for the pain and suffering that might be occasioned by knowing that he has a shortened life expectancy,” he told the judicial panel. “But you cannot recover for pain and suffering that is unlikely to occur in years where you will no longer be living and that is what the plaintiff received in this case.”

Axelrad told the justices that the company had been falsely painted as engaging in misconduct but in fact had properly followed the science and the law. He said, for example, though Johnson’s attorney had accused Monsanto of ghost-writing scientific papers, company scientists had only made “editorial suggestions” for several papers published in the scientific literature.

“Whether or not Monsanto could have been more forthcoming in identifying its involvement in those studies the bottom line is that those studies produced no false or misleading information and there is no indication that any of the authors of those studies would have changed their opinion had Monsanto not provided editorial comment,” he said.

Axelrad said there was no malice and no basis for punitive damages to be leveled against Monsanto. The company’s defense of its glyphosate-based herbicides over the years has been “entirely reasonable and in good faith,” he said.

“There is absolutely no evidence that Monsanto distributed false, misleading or incomplete information, no evidence that its actions prevented the dissemination of information to regulatory agencies needed to review the scientific evidence, no evidence that its actions compromised the ultimate regulatory decision making and no evidence that Monsanto refused to conduct a test or study in order to conceal information about a risk of harm or prevent the discovery of new information about the science of glyphosate,” he said.

Johnson attorney Mike Miller said that Monsanto’s lawyers were attempting to get the appellate court to retry the facts of the case, which is not its role.

“Monsanto misunderstands the appellate function. It is not to reweigh the facts. The facts that were just argued by Monsanto’s counsel were rejected thoroughly by the jury and rejected by the trial judge…” Miller said.

The appellate court should uphold the damages the jury awarded, including the punitive damages,  because Monsanto’s conduct surrounding the science and safety of its glyphosate herbicides was “egregious,” Miller said.

The evidence presented at the Johnson trial showed Monsanto engaged in the ghostwriting of scientific papers while it failed to adequately test its formulated glyphosate herbicides for carcinogenicity risks. The company then initiated “unprecedented” attacks on the credibility of  international cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, he told the judicial panel.

“In punitive damages, as you assess the reprehensibility of Monsanto you must factor in the wealth of Monsanto. And the award must be enough to sting,” said Miller. “Under California law unless it changes the conduct it hasn’t fit the purpose of punitive damages.”

The appellate panel has 90 days to issue a ruling.

UPDATED- St. Louis Trial over Monsanto Roundup Cancer Claims in Limbo

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(UPDATE) – On Sept. 12, the Missouri Supreme Court closed the case, agreeing with plaintiffs’ attorneys that Monsanto’s request for the high court to take up the venue issue was moot.   St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen then transferred all plaintiffs except Winston to St. Louis County in a Sept. 13 order.)

An October trial pitting a group of cancer patients against Monsanto in the company’s former home state of Missouri is snared in a tangled web of actions that threaten to indefinitely postpone the case.

New court filings show that lawyers for both sides of Walter Winston, et al v. Monsanto have been engaging in a series of strategic moves that may now be backfiring on them leading up to the trial date of Oct. 15 date set by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen. Lawyers for the 14 plaintiffs named in the Winston lawsuit have been pushing to keep their case on track so they can present claims from the cancer victims to a St. Louis jury next month. But Monsanto lawyers have been working to delay the trial and disrupt the combination of plaintiffs.

The Winston lawsuit, filed in March of 2018, would be the first trial to take place in the St. Louis area. Before selling to the German company Bayer AG last year, Monsanto was based in the suburb of Creve Coeur and was one of the largest St. Louis area-based employers.  Roundup cancer trials that had been set for St. Louis area in August and September have both already been delayed until next year.

The plaintiffs in the Winston case are among more than 18,000 people in the United States suing Monsanto claiming that exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto hid the risks associated with its weed killers.

The back and forth battling over where and when the Winston trial may or may not take place began more than a year ago and has involved not only the local St. Louis court but also the appeals court in Missouri and the state Supreme Court.

In March of this year Monsanto filed a motion to sever and transfer 13 of the 14 plaintiffs in the Winston case from the St. Louis City Court to the Circuit Court for the County of St. Louis, where the company’s registered agent was located and where “venue is proper.”  The motion was denied. The company had filed a similar motion in 2018 but it also was denied.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers opposed such a severing and transfer earlier this year, but they have now changed that stance because amid all the maneuvering, Monsanto has been seeking intervention by the Missouri Supreme Court. The state’s high court ruled earlier this year in an unrelated case that it was not proper for plaintiffs located outside St. Louis City to join their cases to a city resident in order to obtain venue in St. Louis City. St. Louis City court has long been considered a favorable venue for plaintiffs in mass tort actions

Monsanto’s bid for intervention by the Missouri Supreme Court was rewarded on Sept. 3 when the Supreme Court issued a “preliminary writ of prohibition” allowing Walter Winston’s individual case to “proceed as scheduled” in St. Louis City Circuit Court. But the court said that the cases of the 13 other plaintiffs joined in Winston’s lawsuit could not proceed at this time as it considers how to handle the cases. The court ordered a freeze on any further actions by the St. Louis City Court, “until the further order of this Court.”

Fearing their case will be broken apart and/or delayed waiting for a Supreme Court decision on venue, the plaintiffs’ lawyers on Sept. 4 said they were withdrawing their opposition to Monsanto’s request for a transfer of the case to St. Louis County.

But now Monsanto no longer wants the case transferred given the Supreme Court’s action. In a filing last week the company said: “Plaintiffs fought venue at every opportunity, instead of agreeing to transfer their claims to St. Louis County and seeking a trial setting in that Court long ago. Rewarding the Winston Plaintiffs for this choice will only encourage further gamesmanship.”

On Monday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a response arguing that the Winston plaintiffs should be transferred to St. Louis County as Monsanto had previously requested and that would make the venue issue before the court moot. They also argued that the judge in St. Louis City who has been presiding over the Winston case should continue to handle the case within the county court system.

“With the withdrawal of their opposition to Monsanto’s motion, Plaintiffs have consented to the very relief that Monsanto requests of this Court – transfer of the Winston plaintiffs to St. Louis County,” the plaintiffs’ filing states.  “The Winston plaintiffs’ case is trial ready. If the case is transferred to St. Louis County in short order, the Plaintiffs can begin trial on or close to the schedule currently in place.”

Whether or not a trial will still take place in mid October in St. Louis is still an open question.