(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Bayer AG has at last reached a settlement to end most of the current lawsuits alleging its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer. Whether the German life-sciences group has put this saga completely behind it is less clear, but it has achieved what closure it can.
The headline number of $11 billion is in the region that analysts had estimated it would cost to settle litigation around the product, which was inherited in the acquisition of Monsanto Co. in 2018. As much as $9.6 billion of the total will go to law firms handling current claims, of which 75% are now resolved. Logistical challenges and holdouts probably precluded striking deals with the remaining 25%, but the overall sum includes an allowance for resolving those claims. It’s plausible that the core deal here covers the strongest suits most likely to go to court.
Bayer always wanted an agreement to be as final as possible. This meant tackling the issue of future claims. It doesn’t want them going before a jury. So it is to create a scientific panel to decide whether glyphosate, the compound in Roundup, causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Future claims, it says, will depend on a class agreement heeding its findings. Bayer will provide $1.3 billion to support the panel’s work and this separate legal process, as well as assistance for cancer patients.
Citing existing science, the company says it is highly confident the panel will conclude glyphosate is safe. What if the panel decides otherwise? Bayer says plaintiffs will then have to prove they were exposed to dangerous levels of the weed-killer. But there’s no specific number for paying out on any future claims.
The results of this new scientific work on glyphosate are perhaps several years away. It is hard for the company to make any financial provision against a possibly negative outcome now, especially one which it believes won’t happen. But the theoretical risk of a new wave of payouts in future may weigh on investors’ minds even if the noise around Roundup quietens down in the meantime.
Clearly, Bayer management is displeased that it is having to pay out these sums in relation to a product it asserts is safe when used properly. From its perspective, the problem is the U.S. legal system and the challenges facing lay juries weighing scientific data. The settlement gets Roundup out of court now and makes scientists weigh the evidence in future.
For sure, Bayer was right to see that the sheer volume of cases made contesting the claims an unrealistic endeavor. That would have meant years of bad publicity from the courtroom arguments. Over time, Bayer’s standing in society would get eroded. Just consider the revelations about Monsanto’s conduct that have come to light.
For now, Bayer can now get on with making the Monsanto acquisition deliver. The settlements costs, to be spread over two years, are affordable and Bayer’s dividends won’t be affected. But the shares are still badly trailing the sector even with investors having long expected this deal. It must feel like the end of a long journey for CEO Werner Baumann. But the hurdle for making the Monsanto deal pay off remains high.
(This column was updated with more details on the settlement total.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.
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