By Laura Kusisto and Jacob Bunge 

Bayer AG has agreed on draft settlement terms with half a dozen law firms representing tens of thousands of plaintiffs alleging that the company's Roundup weedkiller causes cancer, pushing the litigation closer to a final resolution, according to people familiar with the matter.

The six big firms speak on behalf of dozens of firms that represent a large chunk of the plaintiffs suing Bayer, the people said. Bayer is striving to find a way to both keep Roundup on consumer shelves and end litigation that significantly damaged its share price following the loss of three jury trials in the U.S.

For weeks, Bayer and plaintiffs attorneys have been discussing a settlement in the $10 billion range, The Wall Street Journal has reported, citing people familiar with the matter. One person said the deal still appears poised to end up around that number, though the people cautioned that a formal deal hasn't been signed and could yet fall apart.

Parties on both sides are free to walk away from the agreements, and Bayer has said that protecting itself from future litigation is a condition of any settlement.

The parties could reach a final agreement in the coming weeks, the people said. That would help Bayer appease anxious shareholders in advance of its annual meeting in late April. A first deal with plaintiff lawyers would relieve the German chemicals and pharmaceuticals company of a major headache as it is under growing pressure to reach a settlement to appease investors.

Kenneth Feinberg, the court-appointed mediator for the settlement talks, said he continues to be "cautiously optimistic that a settlement can be reached" but called it "premature" to say any final agreement has been achieved.

A spokesman for Bayer said, "Mediation discussions continue in good faith under a court order requiring confidentiality, and the company cannot comment on speculation about outcomes, timing or progress."

Tens of thousands of plaintiffs have sued Bayer, saying Roundup is linked to cancer. The company has defended the popular weedkiller, noting that multiple regulators, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have said it is safe. The company lost its first three jury trials, all of which it is appealing.

The major firms who have agreed to terms are Andrus Wagstaff PC, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman PC, Moore Law Group PLLC, Weitz & Luxenberg PC, the Miller Firm PC and Lundy, Lundy, Soileau & South LLP. Those firms have either won major verdicts against Bayer, have trials upcoming or have large inventories of cases, giving them significant leverage.

Bayer inherited tens of thousands of lawsuits with its 2018 takeover of Monsanto Co., the maker of Roundup.

Bayer may still struggle to achieve finality in the case, especially given that the product remains on store shelves. Some law firms representing thousands of plaintiffs remain unhappy with the terms offered so far, saying that it favors the leading firms over others. It is unclear if this complaint will be enough reason for them to reject the certainty offered by a settlement versus going to trial.

"Cancer victims have to be treated the same and if they're not we're ready, willing and fully motivated to go to trial," said Majed Nachawati, a Dallas-based attorney representing more than 4,000 claimants.

Jim Onder, senior member of the St. Louis-based Onder Law Firm, said Bayer has yet to offer satisfactory settlement terms to tens of thousands of plaintiffs, including more than 22,000 clients represented by his firm.

"We've been unsuccessful in resolving the matter with Bayer and we have a series of cases set to go to trial beginning in June 2020," Mr. Onder said.

Bayer and the plaintiff attorneys are under growing pressure to reach a deal. California U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing the consolidated cases, on March 5 granted the parties a 35-day extension suspending deadlines on the litigation so they can focus on settlement talks.

Tom Claps, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, said that means that if the parties don't reach an agreement by mid-April, they would begin moving forward again on the litigation.

"We're getting to that point where there has to be some movement on the settlement front or the judge is going to push forward," he said.

Bayer executives have insisted they are under no pressure to settle unless they can achieve a lasting deal for the right price.

"If we take certain deadlines and accept certain deadlines, most likely we will not come up with the optimal result for our company and for our shareholders," Chief Executive Werner Baumann said last month when asked by a reporter on a quarterly conference call if Bayer aimed to settle before its next shareholder meeting. "That's why we will continue to negotiate until we can come up with a result which is acceptable for us."

--.Ruth Bender contributed to this article.

Write to Laura Kusisto at laura.kusisto@wsj.com and Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 13, 2020 16:11 ET (20:11 GMT)

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