First Roundup cancer test trial begins in California

The first US ‘bellwether’ or test case hearing allegations that Bayer’s popular glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup causes cancer began in California on 25 February, Reuters reports.

Roundup is the herbicide brand of US agrochemical firm Monsanto, which German chemicals firm Bayer bought for US$63bn in June last year.

The lawsuit by California resident Edwin Hardeman against Bayer is a test case that aims to reach a large-scale resolution over Roundup.

More than 760 of the 11,200 Roundup cases in the USA had been consolidated in the federal court in San Francisco hearing Hardeman’s case, Reuters said.

During the first phase of the trial, the nine-person jury was asked to weigh scientific evidence to determine whether Roundup caused Hardeman’s lymphoma.

The trial has been split into two phases following a decision on 3 January by US District Judge Vince Chhabria to grant Bayer’s request for “bifurcation”. Lawyers in Hardeman’s and other upcoming bellwether trials have to demonstrate that glyphosate in weedkillers causes cancer, before presenting evidence to prove Monsanto acted with malice.

Aimee Wagstaff, a lawyer for Hardeman, told the San Francisco court on 25 February that chemicals in Roundup made the weedkiller more toxic than glyphosate alone, causing his cancer.

Hardeman began using Roundup in the 1980s to control poison oak and weeds on his property and sprayed “large volumes” of the chemical for many years on a regular basis, according to court documents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 66 in February 2015, Reuters said.

However, Brian Stekloff, a lawyer for Bayer, attacked the idea of a link between Roundup and cancer. He noted that US rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had remained steady over time, even when Roundup use began to soar in the 1990s.

Stekloff said Hardeman’s age and his history of chronic hepatitis C were known risk factors for developing lymphoma.

Analysts expect Bayer shares to remain under pressure until more glyphosate cases have been tried in court to, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Bayer confirmed on 27 February that as of late January, it faced a total of 11,200 plaintiffs over its glyphosate products, compared with 9,300 at the end of October.

The company reported a net loss of US$4.46bn in its fourth quarter, compared with a profit of US$168M a year ago, mostly a result from write-offs for consumer health brands it was selling, a pharmaceuticals plant it was closing and costs linked to buying Monsanto last year, WSJ said.

It had also made a US$695M provision in the fourth quarter, mainly for legal defence costs expected in the next three years, up from US$100M in the same quarter a year ago, although it had not provisioned for potential plaintiff payouts.

In August 2018,US groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson was awarded damages of US$289M after he claimed that Monsanto’s weedkillers caused his cancer.A judge later reduced the award to US$78.5M and Bayer is appealing the verdict but the legal battle had cast a cloud over Bayer’s prospects and its stock had fallen 30% since the courtroom defeat, WSJ wrote.