ST LOUIS (REUTERS) - Johnson & Johnson failed to persuade a Missouri trial judge to set aside a July verdict awarding a record US$4.69 billion (S$6.4 billion) to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on asbestos in the company’s Baby Powder and other talc products.
The healthcare company faces thousands of lawsuits over the safety of talc in its Baby Powder, a fixture of its consumer products division that has been core to J&J’s reputation as a family friendly company.
The trial was the first in which plaintiffs claimed that asbestos fibres in J&J’s talc caused ovarian cancer. It relied on unsealed internal company documents detailing J&J’s alleged knowledge of asbestos contamination since at least the 1970s.
The company, which says its Baby Powder does not contain asbestos and is safe, said in a statement that the failed motion was merely a formal step required before appealing against the verdict.
“The same judge has denied similar motions on prior verdicts in his court that were ultimately overturned by the appellate courts. We are confident this verdict will also be overturned on appeal,” J&J said.
Judge Rex Burlison in the ruling on Wednesday (Dec 19) said the jury’s decision and the large award of punitive damages was justified based on J&J’s “particularly reprehensible conduct” as evidenced during trial. He denied the company’s request to overturn the verdict, saying the women had presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.
A jury in July awarded US$550 million in compensatory damages and US$4.14 billion in punitive damages.
Reuters published a special report last Friday, detailing the company documents that sent J&J shares tumbling. They have dropped more than 13 per cent since then, wiping out more than US$45 billion in the company’s market value.
Shares on Wednesday were off about 2 per cent at US$127.88.
Mr Mark Lanier, the women’s lawyer during trial, said in a statement that plaintiffs were pleased with Judge Burlison’s decision.
The women and their families said decades-long use of baby powder and other cosmetic talc products caused their illness. They allege the company knew its talc was contaminated with asbestos since at least the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.
While plaintiffs in the long-running litigation in the past had claimed talc itself causes ovarian cancer, plaintiff lawyers in recent months shifted their claims to allege asbestos in the talc causes mesothelioma, a cancer closely linked to asbestos exposure, and ovarian cancer.
J&J denies that its talc products ever contained asbestos and says decades of studies and regulatory assessments show its talc to be safe.
Missouri’s appeals court has overturned two prior ovarian cancer talc verdicts against J&J on technical legal grounds, saying the decisions could not stand following a 2017 US Supreme Court decision limiting where companies can be sued for personal injuries.
The company in its September motion made a similar argument, telling Judge Burlison that the women, the majority of whom were from out-of-state, had no right to sue in Missouri.
J&J also said Mr Lanier, during the trial, “substituted proof and evidence with misleading and inflammatory graphics”, including an image depicting J&J pushing a woman off a cliff into ovarian cancer.
But Judge Burlison said in his Wednesday ruling that the cases rightly belonged in Missouri court due to J&J’s connection to the state.
More than 9,700 talc lawsuits, the vast majority of those J&J faces, allege that asbestos-laced cosmetic talc caused ovarian cancer, while a smaller number claim its use led to mesothelioma.