Bottles of Johnson Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. (Reuters photo)
NEW YORK: Johnson Johnson was ordered Thursday to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women and their families who had claimed that asbestos in the company’s talcum powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
A jury in a Missouri circuit court awarded $4.14 billion in punitive damages and $550 million in compensatory damages to the women, who had accused the company of failing to warn them about cancer risks associated with its baby and body powders.
Johnson Johnson, the maker of Johnson’s baby powder, said it was “deeply disappointed” in the verdict and planned to appeal. The company is facing more than 9,000 plaintiffs in cases involving body powders with talc, according to a regulatory document filed this spring.
After a six-week trial, the jury in St Louis deliberated over the compensatory damages for eight hours but decided on the punitive damages in roughly 45 minutes, said Mark Lanier, a lawyer for the women.
Six of the women have died; almost all of the rest, along with friends and relatives, were in the courtroom Thursday. One plaintiff is undergoing chemotherapy and was too ill to attend, Mr Lanier said.
“There were people crying, people hugging,” he added. “It’s been quite an emotional scene.”
Mr Lanier said Johnson Johnson had spent 40 years covering up evidence of asbestos in some of its talcum-based products and should mark those products with warning labels or focus on powders made with cornstarch.
The punitive damages are among the largest ever awarded in a product liability case, he said.
Johnson Johnson called the verdict “the product of a fundamentally unfair process” that combined 22 women with few connections to Missouri into a single group of plaintiffs in St Louis.
The company “remains confident that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause ovarian cancer and intends to pursue all available appellate remedies,” it said in a statement.
The company has said concerns about talc’s being linked to cancer are based on inconclusive research.
Asbestos is a carcinogen that sometimes appears in natural talc but was stripped from commercial talc products in the 1970s, according to the American Cancer Society.
And according to the National Cancer Institute, claims that talc used for feminine hygiene purposes can be absorbed by the reproductive system and cause inflammation in the ovaries are not supported by “the weight of evidence”.
Plaintiffs in talc cases have approached litigation in smaller groups instead of suing Johnson Johnson en masse. The risky strategy allows earlier plaintiffs to send signals about legal tactics and their award amounts to women who bring cases later.
Suing in clusters also maximises the emotional effect of the women’s stories on juries, Mr Lanier said.
“It’s easier to get justice in small groups,” he said. “In small groups, people have names, but in large groups, they’re numbers.”
The first talc trial was in 2013 in US District Court in South Dakota. A jury found Johnson Johnson negligent but did not award damages to the plaintiff. Several other cases have involved sizeable damages, including a $417 million verdict reached by jurors in Los Angeles County Superior Court last year.
The plaintiff in the Los Angeles case has since died, and the verdict was overturned and a new trial granted.
Johnson Johnson, which has successfully appealed a number of talc cases, said in its statement Thursday that “the multiple errors present in this trial were worse than those in the prior trials which have been reversed”.