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Health and wellness

Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay US$4.7 billion over claims of cancer-causing asbestos in its talcum powder

The ruling, including US$4.1 billion in punitive damages, is the sixth-largest jury verdict in a product-defect claim in US history, and caused the company’s shares to drop

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 11:03pm

Johnson & Johnson must pay US$4.14 billion in punitive damages to women who claimed asbestos in the company’s talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. The company’s shares dropped in after-hours trading.

The jury earlier ordered J&J to pay them US$550 million in compensatory damages, bringing the total to US$4.69 billion. The amount marks the largest jury award in the US in 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and the sixth-largest jury verdict in a product-defect claim in US history.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict Thursday to award compensatory damages for 22 plaintiffs that averaged US$25 million apiece. The jurors then deliberated over how much to award in punishment damages.

J&J dropped 1.4 per cent in late trading after closing at US$127.76 in New York.

The company will appeal, Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman, said in an email. The verdict “was the product of a fundamentally unfair process that allowed plaintiffs to present a group of 22 women, most of whom had no connection to Missouri, in a single case all alleging that they developed ovarian cancer,” she said.

The result, “which awarded the exact same amounts to all plaintiffs irrespective of their individual facts, and differences in applicable law, reflects that the evidence in the case was simply overwhelmed by the prejudice of this type of proceeding,” Goodrich added.

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The company’s products don’t contain asbestos and don’t cause ovarian cancer, she said. Goodrich predicted the verdict would be reversed. “The multiple errors present in this trial were worse than those in the prior trials which have been reversed.”

J&J knew its talc products were contaminated with asbestos and kept this information from reaching the public, Mark Lanier, the plaintiffs’ lawyer told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday. J&J sought to protect the image of Baby Powder as “their sacred cow,” he said.

J&J “rigged’’ tests to avoid showing the presence of asbestos, Lanier said. If a test showed the presence of asbestos J&J sent it to a lab the company knew would produce different results, he told the jurors.

Johnson & Johnson has faced multiple trials in St Louis over ovarian cancer claims, losing four of the first five to go to trial. Two of those plaintiffs’ verdicts, one for US$72 million and the other for US$55 million, have been erased on appeal on jurisdictional grounds. The other two are on appeal, facing the same challenges from J&J.

The company has had a better record with judges than juries in the ovarian cancer cases. A separate plaintiffs’ award, for US$417 million by a Los Angeles jury in August, was reversed by the trial judge who decided evidence didn’t support the verdict. A New Jersey judge in 2016 stalled lawsuits in that state by tossing two cases set for trial, also finding a lack of scientific evidence.

Johnson & Johnson is also fighting a separate battle with plaintiffs who blame the company’s talc products for their developing mesothelioma, a form of cancer generally found in the lungs, that is linked to asbestos exposure.

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Most of the women in St Louis trial used baby powder, but others used Shower-to-Shower, another of Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based products. Johnson & Johnson sold the product to Valeant Pharmaceuticals International in 2012. Valeant now faces suits over the body powder.

The women in the St Louis trial, whose jobs range from school bus driver to executive director of a job retraining programme, come from states across the country, including Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and New York. Six of the women have died, so their families are pressing wrongful-death claims against Johnson & Johnson.