The trial differed from previous talcum powder cases by claims that ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos found in Johnson’s baby powder…
This trial, which began June 4 in St. Louis Circuit Court, had 22 plaintiffs making claims against the company. The jury basically awarded $25 million to each family who sued, including six plaintiffs who sued on behalf of relatives who died and other plaintiffs who had a spouse who claimed health effects.
The jury then agreed to $3.15 billion in punitive damages against Johnson & Johnson and $990,000 against Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.
After the trial, plaintiffs and their families lined up in the courtroom to embrace and thank the jurors. Some wiped away tears.
Asked what message jurors were trying to send to the company, a female juror who did not want her name used responded, “We were just trying to find something they would feel.” She said jurors did not arrive at the $4.14 billion punitive damage amount by chance. They multiplied the roughly $70 million Johnson and Johnson earned selling baby powder in a recent year by the 43 years it’s been since the company claimed the baby powder did not contain asbestos, she said.
Later, she could be overheard telling plaintiffs that as soon as she got her cellphone back after the trial, “I posted on Facebook: Do not buy.”
Plaintiff Cecilia Martinez of Dallas, said she hopes the case will make Johnson & Johnson “make changes to protect mothers and babies.”
Martinez, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, also said she hopes the company will now operate with “honesty, integrity and do the right thing even when no one is watching.”
Plaintiff Toni Roberts, who has been receiving chemotherapy in Virginia but said she is now terminal, said “I feel like justice has been served.”
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said they were “deeply disappointed” in 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.”
“Johnson & Johnson remains confident that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause ovarian cancer and intends to pursue all available appellate remedies. 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,” the statement says.
In his own statement, lead plaintiffs’ counsel Mark Lanier of Houston said Johnson & Johnson “should pull talc from the market before causing further anguish, harm, and death from a terrible disease. J&J sells the same powders in a marvelously safe corn starch variety. If J&J insists on continuing to sell talc, they should mark it with a serious warning.”
The trial differed from five previous talcum powder cases by focusing on the women’s claims their ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos allegedly found in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.
It’s the country’s first such talcum powder trial against Johnson & Johnson testing those claims. Plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier of Houston told St. Louis jurors they were the first to see internal company documents revealing knowledge of asbestos in products or failures to warn consumers.
“Your voice is not just the voice of the community but the voice of the world,” Lanier told jurors Wednesday in his closing argument. “You don’t jack with people’s lives like this. … It’s just not right.”
As the compensatory verdicts totaling $550 million were being read Thursday, a sheriff’s deputy walked down the row of seats in the packed courtroom, handing out tissues to plaintiffs and their relatives.
Each side was given 10 minutes to argue over the appropriate punitive award after jurors were told Johnson & Johnson was worth $63 billion in 2018 and Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. was worth $13 billion in 2017.
Lanier said each unanimous verdict in the first phase of the trial was “a message in itself.” But he asked jurors to use their punitive verdict to “say something Johnson & Johnson will hear.”
“You can change the world,” he told them.
Morton Dubin, a Johnson & Johnson lawyer, said the first verdict “sent a very powerful message” and was “difficult to hear.” He also suggested that talk of the total worth of the company should be tempered by the fact the talcum powder business represented only a small percentage of the company.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said punitive damage awards are limited by state law to five times the amount of compensatory damages awarded and defense lawyers probably would file a motion to reduce the award.
The company’s lawyers have repeatedly rejected claims of asbestos in its baby powder and maintains that its products are safe. Asbestos is a mineral that has been linked to mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
Throughout previous trials and appeals in St. Louis, the company has issued statements denying any link between talc and ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson lawyer Peter Bicks criticized the plaintiffs’ case and paid experts as “science for hire,” saying the company for years has exceeded industry standards in testing its talcum powder for asbestos.
He said plaintiffs had failed to prove Johnson & Johnson’s products caused or contributed to the women’s cancer, citing several scientific studies and conclusions by U.S. government agencies finding the company’s products safe and without asbestos.
“Yes, this is terrible,” Bicks said of the women’s cancer. “But just because something terrible happened doesn’t mean Johnson & Johnson had anything to do with it.”
In this case, one of Johnson & Johnson’s suppliers Imerys SA settled out of court for $5 million, according to a Bloomberg News report. Johnson & Johnson faces lawsuits nationwide from more than 9,000 plaintiffs seeking to link talc to ovarian cancer.
Five of the 22 plaintiffs in the latest trial are Missouri residents, two of whom have died. Six of the 22 plaintiffs have died of ovarian cancer.
The survival of the recent talcum powder verdicts and thousands more pending cases may rest on state and federal legal battles that could clarify rules for how courts handle mass tort claims.
One of the surviving plaintiffs is Gail Ingham, 73, of O’Fallon, Mo., a mother of two boys who worked in payroll at Mallinckrodt for two decades before finishing her career at Boeing. She said in a recent interview that she was diagnosed with stage-3 ovarian cancer in 1985 and underwent a year’s worth of chemotherapy treatments, surgeries and drug treatments. She was declared free of cancer in the early 1990s, she said.
Ingham, who used baby powder for decades, wrote a book about her experiences that includes survival tips, ways to stay healthy and recipes for good nutrition.
She said her fight with cancer was “earth-shaking” and that she’s grateful to have survived it, adding that she joined the lawsuit because women who use baby powder “need to know what’s in there. They need to know what’s going on. Women need to know because they’re putting it on their babies.”
The science is inconclusive on whether talcum powder can cause ovarian cancer.
Another plaintiff is Karen Hawk, 67, of Kansas City, a mother of five who used baby powder most of her life. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and beat it in 2008.
“That’s why I feel this trial is so important for the women who are using it,” Hawk said. “I hope it gets taken off the market. People don’t know what they’re dealing with.”
Previous talcum powder trials in St. Louis have ended in multimillion-dollar verdicts against Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson earned a defense verdict in one of those trials and a reversal last fall of a $72 million plaintiff’s verdict on appeal.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed limits on where injury lawsuits can be filed. In June, a Missouri appeals court threw out a $55 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson, citing the Supreme Court ruling.
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