J&J Hit with $300 Million in Punitive Damages in Talc Case

A New York state court jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $300 million in punitive damages to a woman who claimed her use of the health-products company’s talc powder caused an asbestos-linked cancer.

Source: WSJ | Published on June 3, 2019

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The jury’s award Friday was one of the largest to an individual in a series of trials over a range of safety-related allegations about its talc products, including Johnson’s Baby Powder. Last week, the jury awarded the woman, Donna Olson, $20 million for pain and suffering and $5 million to her husband, bringing the total damages in the case to $325 million.

The award was also among the biggest in a subset of the J&J talc lawsuits that center on mesothelioma, a rare cancer that health researchers have linked to inhalation of asbestos. Ms. Olson alleged Johnson’s Baby Powder contained asbestos that caused her mesothelioma.

A J&J spokesman said the New York trial had legal errors that the company believes will warrant a reversal on appeal, which it plans to pursue. “Decades of tests by independent experts and academic institutions repeatedly confirm that Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer,” the spokesman said.

Jerome Block, an attorney for the Olsons, said in a statement that “another jury has rejected J&J’s misleading claims that its talc was free of asbestos.” He said the punitive damages awarded to the Olsons reflect J&J’s “wanton and reckless” misconduct.

Johnson’s Baby Powder is among New Brunswick, N.J.,-based J&J’s most recognizable products and one of the few branded with the company’s name, though the powder accounts for a tiny fraction of its $81.6 billion in overall sales.

Concerns about J&J’s potential liability have weighed on its shares. The company’s stock price has fallen more than 10% since December, when Reuters reported that J&J knew for decades that some of its talc powder contained asbestos, but the company concealed it from regulators and the public.

J&J has said the Reuters report ignores thousands of tests showing that its talc products don’t contain asbestos. The company also said the article ignores that it has cooperated fully with the Food and Drug Administration and other authorities, and that J&J has always used the most advanced methods to confirm its cosmetic talc is safe and doesn’t contain asbestos.

J&J faces about 14,200 talc-related claims, the company said in a regulatory filing this month.

Many of the talc-powder claims against J&J have alleged that it caused ovarian cancer in women who regularly used the product for feminine hygiene.

In July 2018, a jury in St. Louis found J&J should pay $4.69 billion in damages to 22 women and their families who blamed ovarian-cancer cases on asbestos in talc powder, the biggest single verdict in such cases so far. That jury found J&J failed to warn that its talc powder raised the risk of ovarian cancer. J&J’s appeal of the verdict is pending.

J&J has won several talc trials—including one last week in South Carolina—and has succeeded in overturning some of the verdicts against it on appeal.

In February, J&J said it received subpoenas from the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking documents related to the safety of its talc products.