Johnson & Johnson loses bid to overturn baby powder verdict, but damages cut to US$2.12b

A 2019 photo shows bottles of Johnson's baby powder on display at a store in New York City. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A Missouri appeals court on Tuesday (June 23) rejected Johnson & Johnson's bid to throw out a jury verdict in favour of women who blamed their ovarian cancer on its baby powder and other talc products, but reduced damages by more than half to US$2.12 billion (S$2.9 billion).

The Missouri Court of Appeals lowered the original US$4.69 billion verdict from July 2018 after dismissing claims by some of the 22 women and their families who sued.

But it said the plaintiffs proved that J&J and an affiliate concealed for decades that its talc products contained asbestos,"worked tirelessly" to ensure that testing protocols would not detect asbestos in all talc samples, and published articles downplaying the safety hazards of talc.

"Plaintiffs proved with convincing clarity that defendants engaged in outrageous conduct because of an evil motive or reckless indifference," the court said.

"There was significant reprehensibility in defendants' conduct."

J&J pledged to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

"This was a fundamentally flawed trial, grounded in a faulty presentation of the facts," spokeswoman Kim Montagnino said.

"We deeply sympathise with anyone suffering from cancer, which is why the facts are so important. We remain confident that our talc is safe, asbestos free, and does not cause cancer."

Tuesday's decision followed J&J's May 19 announcement that it would stop selling its talc Baby Powder in the United States and Canada.

The New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company faces more than 19,000 lawsuits claiming that its talc products caused cancer because of contamination from asbestos, a known carcinogen.

J&J's damages payout in Tuesday's decision include US$500 million of compensatory damages and US$1.62 billion of punitive damages, down from a respective US$550 million and US$4.14 billion in the original verdict from a Missouri circuit court.

Mark Lanier, the lead lawyer for plaintiffs, called the decision "a clarion call for J&J to try and find a good way to resolve the cases for the people who have been hurt."

J&J has faced intense scrutiny of its baby powder's safety following a 2018 Reuters investigative report that found it knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its talc.

Internal company records, trial testimony and other evidence show that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, J&J's raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.

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