Mounting wave of lawsuits threatens Bayer’s Monsanto bet

In this file photo taken on July 9, 2018, customer Gary Harms holds up a Roundup product at a store in San Rafael, California. — AFP pic
In this file photo taken on July 9, 2018, customer Gary Harms holds up a Roundup product at a store in San Rafael, California. — AFP pic

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, July 30 — One year after taking over US seeds and pesticides maker Monsanto in a US$63 billion gamble, the payoff for German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer remains in question as it battles a massive wave of cancer lawsuits over a flagship weedkiller.

The number of plaintiffs claiming Monsanto herbicide glyphosate — present in widely-used weedkiller Roundup — made them sick grew by early July to 18,400, the group said, up 5,000 on April’s total.

In early cases, California juries found for plaintiffs, agreeing blood cancer non-Hodgkins lymphoma had been caused by glyphosate-containing products.

In post-trial revisions, judges have stopped short of overturning those jury verdicts while reducing damages awards.

Last week, a spectacular two-billion-dollar payout was slashed to US$87 million in the case of California couple Alva and Alberta Pilliod.

Nevertheless, “the court finds that there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s findings” that Roundup caused the Pilliods’ cancers, judge Winifred Smith wrote.

There was evidence Monsanto had “sought to impede, discourage or distort scientific inquiry and the resulting science,” she added.

World Health Organization body the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) judged in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” — although this was a finding in absolute terms, rather than one related to typical levels of exposure.

Bayer points to long-term studies of thousands of glyphosate users which it says show no increased cancer risk.

An “extensive body of reliable science and conclusions of leading health regulators worldwide that confirms glyphosate-based herbicides can be used safely and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” it reiterated last week.

“We believe that will ultimately prevail in this litigation on the strength of sound science,” chief executive Werner Baumann told investors in a Tuesday afternoon teleconference.

Unruly shareholders

Bayer chiefs are confident they can prevail before American appeals courts, which do not have juries.

But investors are less sanguine, with the share price sliding 4.6 per cent, to €56.62 (US$63.15) around 3.00pm in Frankfurt (1300 GMT), making it one of the worst performers on the blue-chip DAX index.

Executives had hoped to convince markets to back their bet on helping farmers grow the food needed to feed a swelling world population — headed for 10 billion people by 2050.

Instead, the stock has lost almost half its value compared with prices in early June 2018, ahead of the Monsanto merger’s completion.

With a market cap around €55 billion or US$61 billion, Bayer is now worth less than it originally paid for the St Louis-based Monsanto.

The long slide prompted Bayer shareholders to issue a dramatic slap in the face to the board at the group’s AGM in April, as 55.5 per cent voted against approving executives’ 2018 actions — including the merger.

Some confidence was restored in June when activist hedge fund Elliott revealed a €1.1-billion stake in Bayer and backed its legal defence strategy.

Bayer had earlier announced the hiring of high-profile US lawyer, John Beisner, highlighting his experience in both “successful defenses and settlements”, and said it would “actively” engage with a court-ordered mediation in California that could end in a settlement.

Berenberg analysts last month judged that a US$1 million per plaintiff settlement could cost Bayer around €10 billion, while Markus Mayer of Baader bank told DPA today a potential payout could reach between 15 and 20 billion.

“We would of course only consider a settlement if financially reasonable and if it can achieve finality of the overall litigation,” CEO Baumann said.

Sceptical Europeans

Alongside legal risks, Bayer has had to contend with taking on Monsanto’s corrosive reputation.

Especially in Europe, Monsanto is disliked by environmentalists and some politicians for its reliance on genetically modified seeds and compatible pesticides.

Austria this month banned glyphosate use entirely and France is set to follow suit, while in 2017, the herbicide’s continent-wide license was renewed for only five years rather than the usual 10.

Bayer is also tackling a restructuring announced last autumn that includes some 12,000 job cuts, or 10 per cent of its workforce. — AFP

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