(Bloomberg) -- Johnson & Johnson and a talc-mining company were ordered by jurors to pay $80 million in punitive damages for hiding that their products, including J&J’s iconic baby powder, had been tainted by asbestos and posed a cancer risk.
The New Jersey jury’s award brings to a total of $117 million that J&J and a unit of Imerys SA must pay investment banker Stephen Lanzo III over his claims the companies’ asbestos-laced talc products caused his cancer in what may be a precedent-setting case for U.S. talc litigation.
Lanzo wasn’t in the courtroom when the punitive award was announced Wednesday. The banker’s lawyers, however, wept with joy over the panel’s finding that J&J’s and Imerys’s mishandling of the talc warranted punishment.
“The message to J&J is stop selling this product because it’s dangerous and can kill people,” said Joseph Satterley, one of Lanzo’s lawyers.
The same jury concluded last week J&J and Imerys officials knew for years their talc contained trace amounts of asbestos, a known carcinogen. The verdict was the first time a jury lined up behind a consumer’s claims that J&J’s baby powder and former Shower-to-Shower product can cause mesothelioma, an often-fatal cancer linked to asbestos.
“We will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder and immediately begin our appeal,’’ Carol Goodrich, a J&J spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Once the full evidence is reviewed, this decision will be reversed.’’
Having J&J’s baby powder tied an asbestos-linked cancer “tarnishes the brand a bit,” said Jean Eggen, a Widener University law professor. The verdict and subsequent punitive award may draw more such cases in coming months, she said.
Imerys’s officials said the verdict hasn’t shaken their belief that the company’s rigorous asbestos-testing regime insures that its talc poses no threat. “We intend to appeal this decision and will continue to stand by the safety of our product,” Gwen Myers, a company spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
J&J is grappling with about 6,600 lawsuits from women who blame its baby powder for causing their ovarian cancers. Lanzo’s case may open a second front in the litigation over whether the company’s talc products pose a health threat to consumers.
J&J won the first mesothelioma talc trial tied to its baby powder when a California jury ruled in November the product wasn’t responsible for causing a 61-year-old woman’s cancer. Colgate-Palmolive Co. agreed last year to settle a lawsuit claiming its talcum-powder products caused a Pennsylvania woman to develop mesothelioma.
Jurors in the Lanzo case awarded punitive damages after hearing arguments that J&J executives knew more than 40 years ago their talc products were laced with asbestos and hid that fact to protect the cornerstone of their baby products line.
A J&J scientists warned in a 1974 memo that the asbestos-tainted talc posed “a severe health hazard,” Moshe Maimon, one of Lanzo’s attorneys, told the panel. Lanzo, now 46, was only two years old at the time. “They need to be told in a very loud voice, stop it and never do it again,’’ Maimon said of the company’s decision to hide its baby powder’s health threats.
Last week, jurors in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from J&J’s headquarters, awarded Lanzo $30 million for his pain and suffering. The panel awarded Lanzo’s wife, Kendra, $7 million in damages as well.
Under New Jersey law, jurors had to assess how much responsibility J&J and Imerys bore for Lanzo’s injuries. The panel found J&J liable for 70 percent of the compensatory damages and Imerys for 30 percent.
After the punishment damages were announced, Judge Ana Viscomi refused to apply New Jersey’s damage cap to the award since it didn’t exceed five times the compensatory damages awarded to the Lanzos.
The companies’ lawyers denied the company’s baby powder and Shower-to-Shower product had ever contained asbestos. They argued that decades of testing found talc purchased from Imerys’s units was clear of the carcinogen. J&J sold Shower-to-Shower to Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. in 2012.
J&J’s testing regime was an “expression of care” to try and insure its baby powder was asbestos free, Mike Brock, one of the company’s lawyers, told jurors in the punitive-damage phase. “This is not a company that was putting its hands over its eyes and saying it’s not seeing anything” in terms of asbestos in talc samples, Brock added.
The case is Lanzo v. Cyprus Amex Minerals Co., L00738516, Middlesex Superior Court (New Brunswick).
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