Bayer CEO says would consider glyphosate settlement depending on costs

FILE PHOTO: Werner Baumann, CEO of German pharmaceutical and chemical maker Bayer AG, attends the annual general shareholders meeting in Bonn, Germany, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

By Tina Bellon

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Reuters) - Bayer AG's chief executive said this week the company might consider settling lawsuits over Monsanto's glyphosate-containing weed-killers depending on how high court costs rise, but stressed it remained focused on defending the combined company against claims they cause cancer.

Bayer acquired Monsanto this year for $63 billion.

"If we can settle nuisances at some point where the defense costs in preparing cases are higher than potential settlement amounts, we will of course consider it from an economic standpoint," CEO Werner Baumann told reporters when asked whether there was any scenario in which Bayer would consider settling.

He added: "We will resolutely and with all means defend ourselves in this (glyphosate) litigation."

Baumann was speaking on Monday to German media invited to visit Bayer's new operations in the former research and development facilities of Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri. The remarks, made on Monday, were embargoed to the end of the week to allow media to return home.

Shares in Bayer have lost 25 percent in value since Aug. 10, when a San Francisco jury awarded $289 million to Dewayne Johnson on grounds Monsanto failed to warn the school groundskeeper and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by glyphosate-based RoundUp and Ranger Pro.

Johnson has terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that he alleges was caused by the herbicides.

A judge later reduced the award to $78 million.

Bayer denies that glyphosate causes cancer and says decades of scientific studies and real-world use have shown the chemical to be safe for human use. The company is appealing the findings.

The number of glyphosate cases that Bayer faces across the United States has jumped to more than 8,700, prompting concerns among investors about the impact of litigation costs on Bayer's bottom line.

Baumann expressed confidence that Bayer could handle the litigation, and cited its "inexpensive" $12 million settlement of 4,000 lawsuits over its contraceptive Mirena device.

Bayer also won five of six trials over its best-selling bloodthinner Xarelto, over which it faces 24,000 U.S. lawsuits. The sixth jury found in favor of a plaintiff, but a judge later overturned the decision.

"Due to our exposure as a pharmaceutical company, we have the experience to defend those (glyphosate) cases," he said.

Baumann said the company's legal strategy had been revised following the integration of Bayer and Monsanto in mid-August.

He declined to provide details, but recent court filings reveal some of the steps the company has taken.

Last week, Bayer added the attorneys from law firm Arnold & Portner who won the Xarelto cases for the company to its glyphosate defense team.

It is also trying to change the juror selection process for upcoming trials.

In filings last week in San Francisco federal court, where a new glyphosate trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 25, 2019, Bayer said the "jury pool likely has grown more hostile" due to negative media coverage following the Johnson verdict.

Michael Miller, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff, said the company's claims were "hypocritical beyond belief" given its own efforts to control the message on glyphosate, most recently in a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post.

Bayer has asked U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing the San Francisco case and some 580 others, to significantly expand the jury pool and question prospective jurors about their knowledge of the media coverage of the cases. Chhabria is expected to decide on the requests in December.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Anthony Lin and Sonya Hepinstall)