J&J ordered to pay record $6b in talc powder case

22 women say company's talc-based products had asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer

NEW YORK • A jury in the US state of Missouri has ordered Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to pay a record US$4.69 billion (S$6.4 billion) to 22 women who alleged that the company's talc-based products, including its Baby Powder, contain asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

The verdict is the largest that J&J has faced to date over claims that its talc-based products cause cancer.

The company is fighting some 9,000 talc cases. It denies both that its talc products cause cancer and that they ever contained asbestos. It says decades of studies show its talc to be safe.

Thursday's massive verdict was handed down in the Circuit Court of the city of St Louis.

The jury's decision followed more than five weeks of testimony by nearly a dozen experts on both sides. The women and their families said decades-long use of Baby Powder and other cosmetic talc products caused their diseases. They allege the firm knew its talc was contaminated with asbestos since at least the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.

"Johnson & Johnson is deeply disappointed in the verdict, which was the product of a fundamentally unfair process," the firm said, adding that it remained confident its products do not contain asbestos or cause cancer.

"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," J&J added, saying that it would pursue all available appellate remedies.

The company has successfully overturned talc verdicts in the past, with appeals courts pointing to a 2017 decision by the US Supreme Court that limits where personal injury lawsuits can be filed.

Of the 22 women in the St Louis trial, 17 were from outside Missouri, a state generally seen as friendly towards plaintiffs.

Following the verdict, the women's lawyer, Mr Mark Lanier, called on J&J to pull its talc products from the market "before causing further anguish, harm, and death from a terrible disease".

The majority of the lawsuits that J&J faces involve claims that talc itself caused ovarian cancer, but a smaller number of cases allege that contaminated talc caused mesothelioma, a tissue cancer closely linked to asbestos exposure.

Previous talc trials have produced verdicts as large as US$417 million. But that 2017 verdict by a California jury was overturned on appeal, as were other verdicts in Missouri, and challenges to at least another five verdicts are pending.

The US Food and Drug Administration commissioned a study of various talc samples from 2009 to 2010, including of J&J's Baby Powder. No asbestos was found in any of the talc samples. Mr Lanier said at the trial that flawed testing methods which did not allow for the proper detection of asbestos had been used.

Talc, the world's softest rock, is a mineral closely linked to asbestos and the two substances can appear in close proximity in the earth.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2018, with the headline 'J&J ordered to pay record $6b in talc powder case'. Print Edition | Subscribe