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Johnson & Johnson hit with $4.69 billion damages verdict in baby powder-asbestos ovarian cancer trial in Missouri.

Photograph: Person in hazmat suit with hood and ventilator to prevent asbestos inhalation.

It was a jaw-dropping verdict: on July 12, 2018, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri, awarded 22 women who were alleged to have contracted ovarian cancer by using Johnson & Johnson baby powder $550 million in compensatory damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages, for a total award of almost $4.7 billion.  The plaintiffs in this case alleged that the Johnson & Johnson talc-based powders, sold as “Baby Powder” and “Shower to Shower” contained asbestos -- a well-known carcinogen -- and, when applied as a feminine-hygiene product, was absorbed through the skin and caused ovarian cancer.  Six of the 22 women plaintiffs had died from their cancer at the time of trial. 

Expert scientists for the plaintiff women presented evidence at the trial that the tissue with the ovarian cancer cells contained asbestos and talc particles.  See:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/13/health/4-69-billion-verdict-johnson--johnson-talcum-powder/index.html

Further, at least one of the documents unsealed for the trial indicated that in May of 1974, an official at Johnson & Johnson’s Windsor mine in Vermont, where baby powder talc was extracted, recommended “the use of citric acid in the depression of chrysotile asbestos” from talc removed from that mine site.  See:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-22/j-j-was-alerted-to-risk-of-asbestos-in-talc-in-70s-files-show

This would show pre-existing knowledge by J & J of the presence and danger of asbestos in their baby powders for many years before the women contracted ovarian cancer, yet nothing was apparently done about it. 

It only took the jury a day to reach a verdict holding Johnson & Johnson liable on strict product liability and negligence grounds, after five weeks of testimony from both sides. 

Johnson & Johnson argued there was no asbestos in the baby powder, produced for it by a third-party in Missouri on behalf of J & J (by a talc supplier, Imerys Talc of America, which settled before trial), and that there was no known causal link between use of baby powder and ovarian cancer.  As mentioned above, the plaintiffs’ attorneys provided expert opinion otherwise.    

There are over 9,000 additional cases now pending against Johnson & Johnson nationwide for injury claims involving their talcum powders.  This case illustrates what a “mass tort” is: many individuals injured by use of a single defective and dangerous product.  The trial in Missouri was what is called a “bellweather trial,” selected to see what, if anything, a jury would do with a case similar to other injury cases like it.  Often these trials set the stage for settlement of all claims, or continued litigation -- depending upon who wins, how often, and by how much.  The outcome in this Missouri trial will likely make it harder for Johnson & Johnson to move forward aggressively defending against each individual claim, despite their protestations of immediate and vigorous appeal. 

The lawyers for the plaintiffs know the large punitive damages verdict will be reduced, perhaps by one-half, to conform with Missouri law capping punitive damages.  However, as described in the following article citing opinions by a number of legal experts, Johnson & Johnson will likely have a difficult time setting aside the entire verdict under Missouri law:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-cancer-lawsuit-analys/jj-vows-to-overturn-47-billion-talc-verdict-but-experts-see-hurdles-idUSKBN1K32T8

The case is Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis, Missouri; Cause No. 1522-CC10417-01, Division Ten.

 

James Snyder