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Jury awards $2 billion to couple claiming Monsanto’s Roundup gave them cancer

Q&A: Popular weed killer’s alleged link to cancer spreads concern
Bayer has lost three trials in a row over claims that its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer.
(Richard B. Levine / Sipa USA/TNS)

Bayer was ordered to pay more than $2 billion in damages to a California couple who claimed they got cancer as a result of using the company’s Roundup weedkiller for about 30 years.

It’s the largest jury award in the United States so far this year and the eighth-largest ever in a product-defect claim, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bayer has now lost three trials in a row over claims that Roundup causes cancer.

A jury in state court in Oakland issued the verdict Monday after two other California trials over the herbicide yielded combined damages of $159 million against the company. Bayer is appealing those verdicts and vowed to challenge Monday’s as well.

The jury’s decision “conflicts directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s interim registration review decision released just last month, the consensus among leading health regulators worldwide that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” Bayer said in a statement.

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The jurors agreed that Alva and Alberta Pilliod’s exposure to Roundup used for residential landscaping was a “substantial factor” in their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury awarded damages of about $55 million for the couple’s medical bills and pain and suffering on top of the punitive damages.

The verdict will be vulnerable to a legal challenge by Bayer because courts have generally held that punitive damages shouldn’t be more than 10 times higher than compensatory damages.

Roundup manufacturer Monsanto Co., which Bayer acquired last June, is the named defendant in similar U.S. lawsuits filed by at least 13,400 plaintiffs.

“The verdict in this trial has no impact on future cases and trials, as each one has its own factual and legal circumstances,” Bayer said in its statement.

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Although it was a “risky move” to ask for an award of more than $1 billion, the three verdicts against Bayer show jurors are convinced by evidence against the company, said Anna Pavlik, senior counsel for special situations at United First Partners in New York.

“In this case there appeared to be more detailed evidence damaging to Monsanto, which strengthens plaintiffs’ cases down the pipeline even further,” said Pavlik, who has followed the trials.

Bayer Chief Executive Werner Baumann faces increased shareholder pressure over the litigation the company inherited from Monsanto as investors have been closely watching developments in the costly Roundup lawsuits. Bayer shares have fallen about 40% since the $63-billion Monsanto acquisition. Bayer is scheduled to face more trials over the same claims this summer in St. Louis.

The Pilliods’ lawyer urged jurors to punish the company for covering up the health risks of the herbicide for decades. He told the panel that his punitive damages request was roughly based on the gross profit of $892 million recorded in 2017 by Monsanto’s agricultural-chemicals division.

“That is a number that changes things,” attorney Brent Wisner said during closing arguments at the end of a monthlong trial.

Monsanto countered that the Pilliods had histories of poor health, disease and compromised immune systems that increased their risk of developing cancer. Defense attorney Tarek Ismail emphasized that Monsanto wouldn’t be responsible if the couple would have developed lymphoma without exposure to Roundup.

Though some investors think a third loss could accelerate a global settlement, which analysts have said could top $5 billion, Pavlik thinks Bayer will fight on because it won’t start negotiating from a position of weakness.

If plaintiffs continue to win cases decided by juries in Missouri, the momentum in their favor “may push Bayer to begin to negotiate,” she said.

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