Court orders J&J to pay record $4.69 bn in Baby Powder case
14 July 2018
A jury in the US on Thursday ordered Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to pay a record $4.69 billion to 22 women who alleged that the company’s talc-based products, including its baby powder, contain asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
The verdict is the largest J&J has faced to date over allegations that its talc-based products cause cancer.
The company is battling some 9,000 talc cases. It has denied both that its talc products cause cancer and that they ever contained asbestos. It says decades of studies show its talc to be safe and has successfully overturned previous talc verdicts on technical legal grounds.
The jury in Missouri decided in favour of the women and ordered J&J to pay up $500 million plus $4.1 billion punitive damages. The company said that it is deeply disappointed with the verdict and has said that they will challenge it.
In the trial that went on for six weeks, the women said that they developed ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson talc products for decades. Six out of the 22 women represented in court have succumbed to ovarian cancer.
The prosecution argued that Johnson & Johnson were aware that its talc is contaminated with asbestos since 1970s but did not warn their customers about the risks involved. It also added that Johnson & Johnson used flawed testing methods.
Johnson & Johnson denied the claim and insisted that their products do not cause cancer. The company said that several studies approved their talc as safe and that the verdict was the result of a "fundamentally unfair process" that allowed the women to be represented as a single plaintiff.
Thursday’s massive verdict, handed down in the Circuit Court of the City of St Louis, comprises $550 million in compensatory damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages, according to an online broadcast of the trial by Courtroom View Network.
J&J shares fell 1 by per cent to $126.45 in after-hours trading following the punitive damages award. They had risen by $1.52 during regular trading.
The jury’s decision followed more than five weeks of testimony by nearly a dozen experts on both sides.
The women and their families said decades-long use of baby powder and other cosmetic talc products caused their diseases. They allege the company knew its talc was contaminated with asbestos since at least the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.
The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) had from 2009 to 2010 commissioned a study of a variety of talc samples. It did not find asbestos in any of them. However, some talcs are contaminated with a form of asbestos called tremolite. Tremolite is related to crocidolite and amosite, two of the most carcinogenic asbestos. Both talc and tremolite are created by the same process and are forms of magnesium silicate. Talc deposits have been uncovered from tremolite sources. Many talc mines extracted material highly contaminated with tremolite asbestos fibres, which most likely went into products made from talc.
“Johnson & Johnson is deeply disappointed by the verdict, which was the product of a fundamentally unfair process,” the company said in a statement. It remained confident that its products do not contain asbestos or cause cancer.
“Every verdict against Johnson & Johnson in this court that has gone through the appeals process has been reversed and the multiple errors present in this trial were worse than those in the prior trials, which have been reversed,” J&J said, adding that that it would pursue all available appellate remedies.
J&J has successfully overturned talc verdicts in the past, with appeals courts pointing to a 2017 decision by the US Supreme Court that limits where personal injury lawsuits can be filed.
Of the 22 women in the St. Louis trial, 17 were from outside Missouri, a state generally regarded as friendly towards plaintiffs. The practice of combining plaintiffs in such jurisdictions, commonly criticised as “forum shopping” by defendants, will be challenged on appeal.
Mark Lanier, lawyer for the women, in a statement after the verdict, called on J&J to pull its talc products from the market “before causing further anguish, harm, and death from a terrible disease”.
“If J&J insists on continuing to sell talc, they should mark it with a serious warning,” he said.
The majority of the lawsuits that J&J faces involve claims that talc itself caused ovarian cancer, but a smaller number of cases allege that contaminated talc caused mesothelioma, a tissue cancer closely linked to asbestos exposure.
The cases that went to trial in St. Louis effectively combine those claims by alleging asbestos-contaminated talc caused ovarian cancer.
Previous talc trials have produced verdicts as large as $417 million. But that 2017 verdict by a California jury, as well as other verdicts in Missouri, was overturned on appeal, and challenges to at least another five verdicts are pending.