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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