Couple who said Roundup weedkiller caused their cancer gets $2 billion

Posted at 12:30 PM, May 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-14 13:35:45-04

The outlook for Germany's Bayer looks increasingly grim as court damages tied to the weedkiller Roundup begin to pile up.

A jury in California on Monday awarded more than $2 billion to a couple who claimed that the product caused their cancer. Bayer, the inventor of aspirin, bought Roundup maker Monsanto just last year.

The largest Roundup-related damages award so far underscores the massive legal bill Bayer could owe in the United States, where the company faces lawsuits from roughly 13,400 plaintiffs.

That exposure recently sparked a shareholder revolt against the management of the drug and chemicals giant.

Investors have cause to be upset. Bayer shares fell more than 2% Tuesday, and have dropped more than 45% in the past year.

The company has vowed to fight back, though the path forward appears difficult.

It said in a statement Monday that it was "disappointed with the jury's decision" and would appeal the verdict.

Thousands of cases to come

The decision in California state court on Monday follows two other rulings against Bayer.

Two juries in California previously sided with men who claimed that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, caused them to develop cancer. Bayer is appealing those rulings, too, but could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in payouts in those cases.

With thousands more still on the table, the trio of defeats is a warning sign for the company, which already faces strain.

Last month, over 55% of voting shareholders refused to endorse the actions of management at the company's annual meeting, a rebuke that Berenberg analyst Sebastian Bray described as "unprecedented" in Germany.

Investors want to know whether management did their homework on Monsanto before moving ahead with a $63 billion merger, which closed in 2018. Some believe it's time to consider dramatic structural changes, such as dividing up Bayer's pharmaceutical and agriculture businesses.

The company says that scientific research proves glyphosate is safe when used as directed, and is not carcinogenic. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently said the same.

But Bayer could still opt to settle the thousands of pending cases, according to analysts.

Damien Conover, an analyst who covers Bayer for Morningstar, has estimated that in a worst-case scenario, costs could rise above €13 billion ($14.6 billion). It's hard to put an exact number on the liability without knowing more about the quality of the cases, he said.

Monday's $2 billion penalty is likely to be lowered as litigation continues, according to Conover.

Moody's said in a report last month that settlement payments of €5 billion ($5.6 billion) would be manageable for Bayer, but a total of €20 billion ($22.4 billion) could affect the company's credit rating.