Roundup cancer trials still a threat to Bayer, but settlement talks progressing

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Lawyers for Monsanto owner Bayer AG and for plaintiffs suing Monsanto told a federal judge on Thursday that they were continuing to make progress in settling sweeping nationwide litigation brought by people who claim Monsanto’s Roundup caused them to develop cancer.

In a video hearing, Bayer lawyer William Hoffman told U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria the company had reached deals – or was close to reaching deals – to resolve more than 3,000 lawsuits that are grouped together in multidistrict litigation (MDL) filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The company separately has already settled thousands of cases outside the MDL, cases that have been proceeding through state courts. But controversy and conflict have dogged the overall settlement offers, with allegations from some plaintiffs’ firms that Bayer reneged on agreements reached months ago, and some plaintiffs’ firms unwilling to agree to what they consider inadequate offers from Bayer.

There was no discussion of those complaints, however,  in Thursday’s hearing, with both sides expressing optimistic views.

“The company has moved forward and finalized several agreements with firms…. we’re also hopefully going to finalize additional agreements in the next several days,” Hoffman told the judge.

“Where we are right now… these figures are somewhat estimates but I think they are reasonably close: There are approximately 1,750 cases that are subject to agreements between the company and law firms and another approximately 1,850 to 1,900 cases that are in various stages of discussion right now,” Hoffman said. “We are working to put in place a program to accelerate discussions and hopefully bring agreements to fruition with those firms.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Brent Wisner told the judge it was important to note that there remain a “handful of cases” within the MDL that are not settled yet. But, he said – “We anticipate they will be shortly.”

Judge Chhabria said that given the progress he will continue a stay of the Roundup litigation until November 2 but that he will start moving cases to trial if they are not resolved by that point.

Bayer Bad Dealing Alleged

The cooperative tone expressed in Thursday’s hearing was a far cry from a hearing held last month when plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff  told Judge Chhabria that Bayer was not honoring tentative settlement agreements made in March and intended for finalization in July.

Bayer announced in June that it had reached a $10 billion settlement with U.S. law firms to resolve most of more than 100,000 Roundup cancer claims. But at that time the only major law firms leading the litigation that had final signed agreements with Bayer were The Miller Firm and Weitz & Luxenburg.

The Miller Firm’s deal alone totaled $849 million to cover the claims of more than 5,000 Roundup clients, according to settlement documents.

The  California-based Baum Hedlund Aristei &  Goldman law firm; the Andrus Wagstaff firm from Colorado; and the Moore Law Group of Kentucky had tentative deals but not final agreements.

According to a letter written by Wagstaff filed with the court, Bayer requested repeated extensions until the deal with her firm fell apart in mid-August. After reporting the issues to Judge Chhabria, the settlement talks resumed and were ultimately resolved with the three firms this month.

Some details of how the settlements will be administered were filed earlier this week in a court in Missouri. The Garretson Resolution Group, Inc., doing business as Epiq Mass Tort, will act as the
Lien Resolution Administrator,” for instance, for clients of Andrus Wagstaff whose settlement dollars will need to be used in part or in whole to repay cancer treatment expenses paid by Medicare.

Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 just as the first Roundup cancer trial was getting underway. It has since lost all three of the three trials held to date and has lost the early rounds of appeals seeking to overturn the trial losses. Juries in each of the trials found that Monsanto’s herbicides do cause cancer and that Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

The jury awards totaled well over $2 billion, though the judgments have been ordered reduced by trial and appellate court judges.

Bayer had threatened to file for bankruptcy if no nationwide settlement was reached, according to communications from the plaintiffs’ firms to their clients.

Bayer asks appeals court to again cut Roundup damage award owed to California groundskeeper with cancer

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Bayer is asking a California appeals court to trim $4 million from the amount of money it owes a California groundskeeper struggling to survive cancer that a trial court found was caused by the man’s exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

In a “petition for rehearing” filed Monday with the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District of California, lawyers for Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG asked the court to cut from $20.5 million to $16.5 million the damages awarded to Dewayne “Lee” Johnson.

The appeals court “reached an erroneous decision based on a mistake of law,” according to the filing by Monsanto. The issue turns on how long Johnson is expected to live. Because evidence at trial found Johnson was expected to live “no more than two years,” he should not receive money for future pain and suffering allocated for any longer than two years – despite the fact that he continues to outlive predictions, the company argues.

Under the calculations requested by Monsanto, the court should cut from $4 million to $2 million the amount ordered for future non-economic damages, (pain and suffering.) That would reduce the overall compensatory damages (past and future) to $8,253,209. While still insisting it should not owe any punitive damages, if punitive damages are awarded they should be tallied at no more than a 1-to-1 ratio against the compensatory, bringing the total to $16,506,418, Monsanto argues in its filing.

Johnson was initially awarded $289 million by a jury in August 2018, making him the first plaintiff to win at the trial level over claims that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto hid the risks. The trial judge lowered the award to $78 million. Monsanto appealed seeking either a new trial or a reduced award. Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of his full damage award.

The appeals court ruled last month that there was “abundant” evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused Johnson’s cancer. And the court found that “there was overwhelming evidence that Johnson has suffered, and will continue to suffer for the rest of his life, significant pain and suffering.”

But the court said damages should be reduced to a total of $20.5 million because of the issue of Johnson’s short life expectancy.

Along with its demand for a further reduction in damages, Monsanto is asking the appeals court to grant a rehearing to “correct its analysis” and “either reverse the judgment with directions to enter judgment
for Monsanto or, at the very least, vacate the award of punitive damages.”

The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on Monsanto’s efforts to manipulate the scientific record on glyphosate and Roundup and its efforts to quiet critics and influence regulators.  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.

Tens of thousands of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits 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. Both are also under appeal.

Bayer’s actions to trim damage awards for Monsanto’s trial losses comes as the company seeks to settle close to 100,000 Roundup cancer claims pending around the United States in various courts. Some plaintiffs are unhappy with the settlement terms, and are threatening not to agree to the deal.

Action in Pilliod Appeal 

In separate appellate action related to the Roundup litigation, last week lawyers for Alva and Alberta Pilliod filed a brief asking the California appeals court to order damages awards for the married couple totaling $575 million. The elderly couple – both stricken with debilitating cancer they blame on exposure to Roundup – won more than $2 billion at trial, but the trial judge then lowered the jury award to $87 million.

The slashing of the damage award was excessive, according to lawyers representing the couple, and does not sufficiently punish Monsanto for its wrongdoing.

“The three California juries, four trial judges, and three appellate justices who have reviewed Monsanto’s misconduct have unanimously agreed there is “substantial evidence that Monsanto acted with a willful and conscious disregard of others’ safety,” the Pilliod brief states.  “Monsanto’s claim that it is the victim of “injustice” in this case rings increasingly hollow in light of these unanimous and repeated findings.”

The lawyers are asking the court to award a 10-to-1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages.

“The true victims of injustice in this case are the Pilliods, who have both suffered from a devastating and debilitating disease because of Monsanto’s malfeasance,” the brief states. “The jury, in determining that decent citizens need not tolerate Monsanto’s reprehensible behavior, rightly concluded that only a substantial punitive damage could punish and deter Monsanto.”

Some U.S. Roundup plaintiffs balk at signing Bayer settlement deals; $160,000 average payout eyed

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Plaintiffs in the U.S. Roundup litigation are starting to learn the details of what Bayer AG’s $10 billion settlement of cancer claims actually means for them individually, and some are not liking what they see.

Bayer said in late June it had negotiated settlements with several major plaintiffs’ law firms in a deal that would effectively close out the bulk of more than 100,000 pending claims against Monsanto, which was purchased by Bayer in 2018. Plaintiffs in the litigation allege they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma from exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides made with a chemical called glyphosate, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

While the deal initially seemed like good news for the plaintiffs – some who’ve struggled for years with cancer treatments and others who sued on behalf of deceased spouses – many are finding they could end up with little to no money, depending upon a range of factors. The law firms, however, could pocket hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s a win for the law firms and a slap in the face of the harmed” said one plaintiff, who did not want to be named.

Plaintiffs are being told they must decide in the next few weeks if they’re going to accept the settlements, even though they won’t know how much they will personally be paid until much later. All the settlement deals order the plaintiffs not to talk publicly about the details, threatening them with sanctions if they discuss the settlements with anyone other than “immediate family members” or a financial advisor.

This has angered some who say they are considering rejecting the settlements in favor of seeking out other law firms to handle their claims. This reporter has reviewed documents sent to multiple plaintiffs.

For those who do agree, payments could be made as early as February, though the process of paying all the plaintiffs is expected to stretch out a year or more. Communications sent out from law firms to their Roundup clients sketch out both the process each cancer-stricken individual will need to go through to obtain a financial payout and what those payouts might amount to. The terms of the deals vary from law firm to law firm, meaning similarly situated plaintiffs may end up with vastly different individual settlements.

One of the stronger deals appears to be one negotiated by The Miller Firm, and even that is disappointing to some of the firm’s clients. In communications to clients, the firm said it was able to negotiate roughly $849 million from Bayer to cover the claims of more than 5,000 Roundup clients. The firm estimates the average gross settlement value for each plaintiff at roughly $160,000. That gross amount will further be reduced by the deduction of attorneys’ fees and costs.

Though attorneys’ fees can vary by firm and plaintiff, many in the Roundup litigation are charging 30-40 percent in contingency fees.

To be eligible for the settlement, plaintiffs must have medical records supporting diagnosis of certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and be able to show they were exposed at least a year before their diagnosis.

The Miller Firm has been at the forefront of the Roundup litigation since the outset, unearthing many of the damning internal Monsanto documents that helped win all three Roundup trials held to date. The Miller Firm handled two of those trials, bringing in lawyers from the Los Angeles firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman to help with the case of  Dewayne “Lee” Johnson after Miller Firm founder Mike Miller was severely injured in an accident just prior to trial. The two firms additionally worked together in winning 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.

Earlier this month, a California appeals court rejected Monsanto’s effort to overturn the Johnson verdict, ruling that there was “abundant” evidence that Roundup products caused Johnson’s cancer but reducing Johnson’s award to $20.5 million. Appeals are still pending in the other two verdicts against Monsanto.

Scoring Plaintiffs

To determine how much each plaintiff receives from the settlement with Bayer, a third-party administrator will score each individual using factors that include the type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma each plaintiff  developed; the plaintiff’s age at diagnosis; the severity of the person’s cancer and the extent of treatment they endured; other risk factors; and the amount of exposure they had to Monsanto herbicides.

One element of the settlement that caught many plaintiffs off guard was learning that those who ultimately receive money from Bayer will have to use their funds to pay back part of the costs of their cancer treatments that were covered by Medicare or private insurance. With some cancer treatments running into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars, that could quickly erase a plaintiff’s payout. The law firms are lining up third-party contractors who will negotiate with the insurance providers to seek discounted reimbursements, the plaintiffs have been told. Typically in this sort of mass tort litigation, those medical liens can be substantially reduced, the law firms said.

In one aspect of the deal welcomed by plaintiffs, the settlements will be structured to avoid tax liability, according to the information provided to plaintiffs.

Risks in Not Settling  

The law firms must get a majority of their plaintiffs to agree to the terms of the settlements in order for them to proceed. According to the information provided to plaintiffs, settlements are desired now because of a number of risks associated with continuing to pursue additional trials. Among the risks identified:

  • Bayer has threatened to file for bankruptcy, and if the company did take that route, settling Roundup claims would take far longer and likely ultimately result in far less money for plaintiffs.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a letter last August telling Monsanto that the agency won’t allow for a cancer warning on Roundup. That helps Monsanto’s future chances of prevailing in court.
  • Covid-related court delays mean additional Roundup trials are unlikely for a year or more.

It is not unusual for plaintiffs in mass tort litigation to walk away disappointed even with seemingly large settlements negotiated for their cases.  The 2019 book “Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation” by Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, the Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law at the University of Georgia,  makes the case that a lack of checks and balances in mass tort litigation benefits nearly everyone involved except the plaintiffs.

Burch cites as an example litigation over the acid-reflux medicine Propulsid, and said she found that of the 6,012 plaintiffs who entered into the settlement program, only 37 ultimately received any money. The rest received no payouts but had already agreed to dismiss their lawsuits as a condition of entering into the settlement program. Those 37 plaintiffs collectively received little more than $6.5 million (roughly $175,000 each on average), while the lead law firms for the plaintiffs received $27 million, according to Burch,

Setting aside what individual plaintiffs may or may not walk away with,  some legal observers close to the Roundup litigation said a greater good has been achieved with the exposure of corporate wrongdoing by Monsanto.

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.

Several countries around the world, as well as local governments and school districts, have moved to ban glyphosate herbicides, and/or other pesticides because of the revelations of the Roundup litigation.

(Story first appeared in Environmental Health News.)

Court frowns on Bayer’s proposed Roundup class-action settlement

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A federal judge on Monday had harsh words for Bayer AG’s plan to delay potential future Roundup cancer lawsuits and block jury trials, criticizing the highly unusual proposal crafted by Bayer and a small group of plaintiffs’ attorneys as potentially unconstitutional.

The “Court is skeptical of the propriety and fairness of the proposed settlement, and is tentatively inclined to deny the motion,” reads the preliminary order issued by Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The judge’s position appears to be a sharp blow to Bayer and the company’s efforts to resolve a legacy of litigation attached to Monsanto, which Bayer bought two years ago.

More than 100,000 people in the United States claim exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and that Monsanto long knew about and covered up the cancer risks.

Three jury trials have been held in the last two years and Monsanto lost all three with juries awarding more than $2 billion in damages. All the cases are now on appeal and Bayer has been scrambling to avoid future jury trials.

Last month Bayer said it had reached agreements to settle the majority of lawsuits currently filed and had crafted a plan for handling cases that likely would be filed in the future. To handle the current litigation Bayer said it will pay up to $9.6 billion to resolve roughly 75 percent of the current claims and will continue working to settle the rest.

In the plan for handling potential future cases, Bayer said it was working with a small group of plaintiffs’  attorneys who stand to make more than $150 million in fees in exchange for agreeing to a four-year “standstill” in filing cases. This plan would apply to people who may be diagnosed in the future with NHL they believe is due to Roundup exposure. In contrast to Monsanto’s settlement of the pending cases against it, settlement of this new “futures” class action requires court approval.

In addition to delaying more trials, the deal calls for the establishment of a five-member “science panel” that would take any future findings on cancer claims out of the hands of  juries. Instead, a “Class Science Panel” would be established to determine whether Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and if so, at what minimum exposure levels.  Bayer would get to appoint two of the five panel members. If the panel determined there was no causal connection between Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma then the class members would be barred from future such claims.

Several members of the lead law firms who won the three Roundup cancer trials oppose the proposed class action settlement plan, saying it would deprive future plaintiffs of their rights while enriching a handful of lawyers who have not previously been at the forefront of the Roundup litigation.

The plan requires the approval of Judge Chhabria, but the order issued Monday indicated he does not plan to grant approval.

“In an area where the science may be evolving, how could it be appropriate to lock in a
decision from a panel of scientists for all future cases?” the judge asked in his order.

The judge said he will hold a hearing on July 24 on the motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement. “Given the Court’s current skepticism, it could be contrary to everyone’s interest to delay the hearing on preliminary approval,” he wrote in his order.

Below is an excerpt of the judge’s order: