Johnson & Johnson jury awards US$4.14b punitive damages over talc cancer

Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. — Reuters pic
Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. — Reuters pic

MISSOURI, July 13 — Johnson & Johnson must pay US$4.14 billion (RM16.68 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 yesterday to award compensatory damages for 22 plaintiffs that averaged US$25 million apiece. The verdict comes in the first test of plaintiffs’ claims of an asbestos ovarian cancer link in use of J&J’s iconic baby powder. The asbestos cases are part of more than 9,000 claims facing J&J alleging its talc products cause cancer.

The shares of the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company dropped 1.4 per cent in late trading after closing at USUS$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.

Multiple errors’

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.

While the more than US$4 billion punitive-damage verdict will grab the headlines, the jury’s decision that asbestos in J&J’s Baby Powder caused the women’s ovarian cancer may be a bigger, long-term concern, said Jean Eggen, a Widener University law professor who teaches about mass-tort cases.

“This was a new theory and the jury lined up behind it,” Eggen said. “That may be a harbinger of things to come and there are many more ovarian cancer cases than asbestos cases tied to the powder.” — Bloomberg

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