Bayer Braces for Third Roundup Verdict

(Bloomberg) -- The jury in Bayer AG’s third Roundup weedkiller trial was urged by a plaintiffs’ lawyer to consider socking the company with $1 billion in damages as punishment for covering up the health risks of the herbicide for decades.

The aggressive demand on behalf an elderly couple who claim they got cancer from exposure to Roundup shows that plaintiffs are becoming bolder after winning the first two trials against Bayer, which together yielded $159 million in damages.

The couple’s attorney said the billion-dollar request is roughly based on the gross profit of $892 million recorded in 2017 by the agricultural-chemicals division of Monsanto, which was making Roundup long before Bayer acquired the company last year.

“That is a number that changes things,” lawyer Brent Wisner said Wednesday at the close of a trial in state court in Oakland, California. He also asked the jury to award about $55 million to compensate Alva and Alberta Pilliod for economic damages like hospital bills and noneconomic losses such as pain and suffering.

Investors have been closely watching developments in the costly Roundup litigation, and Bayer fell as much as 2.6% Thursday in Frankfurt. The shares have fallen about 40 percent since the $63 billion Monsanto purchase was completed in June.

Wisner argued that Monsanto’s internal data and documents reveal its “manipulation and fabrication of science,” just like other defective products that got to market based on fraudulent representations that they were safe.

An attorney for the company sought Wednesday to poke holes in the Pilliods’ efforts to show that they wouldn’t have developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma if they hadn’t used Roundup for landscaping their properties over a period of 30 years.

Tarek Ismail told the jury that’s an impossible, illogical conclusion given that Alva Pilliod’s weakened immune system greatly increased his risk of developing cancer. Digging into Pilliod’s medical history, Ismail cited 22 different types of skin cancers starting in his 20s, five brain infections starting in the late 1970s caused by herpes, other viral infections and colitis.

“You put this picture together and what do you see?” Ismail asked. “How anyone can stand here and deny this evidence of a weakened immune system is incredible.”

Alberta Pilliod, who Ismail said started smoking before she was 20 years old, similarly suffered from conditions that increased her risk of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the lawyer said. He highlighted testimony from a doctor for the couple to argue her cancerous tumor wasn’t a type associated with exposure to herbicides, “full stop.”

Bayer Chief Executive Officer Werner Baumann faces increased shareholder pressure over the litigation it inherited from Monsanto. The agrochemical giant that operates out of St. Louis is the named defendant in U.S. lawsuits over Roundup filed by 13,400 people, a number that jumps by thousands with each passing quarter.

Bayer denies that Roundup causes cancer and the company has been holding out hope for a court win that would give Baumann some breathing space as the company hones its legal response to the swelling wave of litigation. A third loss, however, could force the company to accelerate talks on a global settlement, which analysts have said could top $5 billion. The judge in San Francisco handling the federal suits canceled a trial scheduled for May 20 to allow for confidential negotiations.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers, meanwhile, are honing their own arguments. In Oakland, Wisner presented evidence previous juries hadn’t seen, and portrayed internal emails and company advertising as evidence of glib disregard for consumer safety.

He played a video of an advertisement for Roundup showing a suburban man in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt killing weeds using the company’s “one-touch wand” to a soundtrack invoking the Old West. He pointed to Monsanto’s own exposure studies recommending that the herbicide be applied with chemical boots and overalls.

“That’s deliberate and knowing disregard for human safety, and it directly links to the Pilliods,” Wisner said.

An award of $1 billion would 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.

The Oakland case is Pilliod v. Monsanto Co. RG17862702, California Superior Court, County of Alameda (Oakland).

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