J&J Cleared in Talc-Cancer Trial for Eighth Win This Year

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(Bloomberg) -- Johnson & Johnson isn’t responsible for a Missouri woman’s cancer that she blamed on asbestos-tainted talc, a jury decided in the company’s latest win in the nationwide litigation over its iconic baby powder.

Jurors in state court in St. Louis concluded Friday J&J’s talc-based product didn’t contribute to the development of Vickie Forrest’s ovarian cancer and didn’t fail to properly warn her about its health risks. Its the company’s first win in the St. Louis courts since last year. Jurors in that same court hit the world’s largest maker of health-care products with a $4.7 billion verdict for more than 20 women who said their use of asbestos-laced baby powder caused their cancers.

The Forrest verdict is J&J’s eighth trial victory in talc cases this year, its fourth win since October and its second triumph this week. It’s a reversal of the company’s earlier talc-litigation scorecard, as it lost three of the first four cases tried in St. Louis over the talc-cancer claims starting in 2016. All of those early plaintiff wins were overturned on appeal.

“The jury carefully considered the decades of independent clinical evidence, which show Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos, and does not cause cancer,” J&J spokeswoman Kimberly Montagnino said in an emailed statement. “We know that anyone suffering from cancer is searching for answers, which is why the science and facts on this topic are so important.”

J&J, which has denied its 135-year-old baby powder line is contaminated with asbestos, still faces more than 16,000 suits from women who mostly say they used the talc-based product for genital hygiene and later developed cancer. Nearly a third of those suits were filed in the last year.

The company has about a dozen trials scheduled around the U.S. next year, including some in the St. Louis area and in state court in Philadelphia.

Forrest and other women contend J&J officials knew as early as the 1970s that asbestos -- a carcinogen often found intertwined with talc -- could contaminate baby powder. They also contend that studies have shown talc alone can cause ovarian cancer. J&J says its baby powder is asbestos-free and disputes the ovarian cancer studies.

“Its disappointing that J&J is going to see this as approval of their continued sale of talc-based baby powder that harms women,” Ted Meadows, one of Forrest’s lawyers, said after jurors returned their verdict late Friday.

Forrest’s lawyers had urged jurors to award the former nurse as much as $20 million in actual damages and as much as $5 billion in punitive damages over J&J’s alleged mishandling of its baby powder line. “Corporate conduct doesn’t get any worse than this,” R. Allen Smith, another of the plaintiff’s lawyers, told jurors in closing arguments Friday.

In October, J&J officials recalled 33,000 bottles of J&J’s talc-based powder after the U.S Food & Drug Administration found traces of asbestos in a single bottle from the same lot. Retailers such as CVS Health Corp. and Rite Aid Corp. pulled all J&J’s baby powder in the wake of the recall.

J&J’s later tests disputed the agency’s asbestos findings, but FDA officials stood by their conclusion.

Judge Rex Burlison, who presided over Forrest’s case, allowed her lawyers to tell the jury about the FDA’s asbestos discovery during the trial as well as J&J Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky’s decision to skip a congressional hearing about the FDA’s asbestos finding in the company’s baby powder.

J&J’s lawyers demanded a mistrial, arguing Forrest’s lawyers crossed the line when they showed a picture of an empty chair in a congressional hearing room with Gorsky’s name in front of it.

“Plaintiff’s counsel conveyed a false and highly prejudicial message to the jury that defendants had refused to cooperate with Congress and were somehow hiding from public scrutiny,” according to the court filing. Burlison denied the request.

Forrest, 56, says she used J&J’s baby powder for more than 30 years on her genitals before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. She has had surgery and chemotherapy to deal with the illness. Still, testimony showed medical tests found no traces of asbestos in her tissue.

Forrest was originally slated to be part of a consolidated trial in January 2019 with 12 other women, but J&J successfully petitioned Missouri’s appeals courts to make her go to trial separately.

J&J’s lawyers successfully persuaded jurors that Forrest suffered from endometriosis, an ailment linked to the type of ovarian cancer she developed. It was that health issue -- and not baby powder use -- that caused her cancer, they argued.

Allison Brown, J&J’s lead defense lawyer, urged jurors to use their common sense in deciding whether Forrest’s ovarian cancer was caused by her use of talc-based powders. “The plaintiffs are seeking to misrepresent science and distract you from the truth,” she said in her closing argument.

The case is Forrest v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 1522-CC00419, Missouri Circuit Court (St. Louis).

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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