Johnson & Johnson lost its motion in court this week to reverse a jury verdict that awarded $4.69 billion to women who said their ovarian cancer was caused by asbestos in the company’s baby powder and other talcum powder products, The New York Times reported. The jury had awarded the plaintiffs $4.14 billion in punitive damages and $550 million compensatory damages, which together account for one of the largest personal injury awards on record.
J&J’s “Reprehensible Conduct”
This week, that award was upheld by Judge Rex Burlison in circuit court in Missouri. The 22 women and their families were the first to file a product defect lawsuit against the pharmaceutical giant claiming that their cancer was linked to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. Documents used in the case were reported by Reuters last week and showed that J&J has known since the 1970s about the risk of asbestos contamination in its talcum powder products.
Internal memos and communications reveal that the company deliberately concealed this fact from consumers and federal regulators in order to protect its popular brands. In response to the Reuters report, J&J has doubled down saying it stands by its products and that their talc doesn’t contain asbestos. The company currently faces nearly 12,000 plaintiffs in talc-related cases.
In the Missouri case, J&J had asked Judge Burlison that the jury verdict be thrown out on jurisdictional grounds and asked that he grant separate trials for each of the plaintiffs. The judge denied those requests and wrote in his decision that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had presented substantial evidence of “reprehensible conduct” by J&J including the fact that the company knew about the presence of asbestos, a carcinogen, in their products, but still marketed them to mothers and babies. The judge also said J&J knew about the potential damage their products could inflict and deliberately misrepresented the safety of those products for decades.
Holding Corporations Accountable
This is indeed a significant victory for the 22 women who filed this lawsuit and won. While this case will go through the appellate process, the evidence against the corporation seems overwhelming, as Judge Burlison states. The powerful report by Reuters last week caused J&J’s stock to tank 10 percent. The company is still defending its talcum powder products. Had it not been for these brave plaintiffs coming forward, we might have never known about J&J’s unethical and as the judge put it, “reprehensible” behavior with regard to concealing the facts and misleading consumers.