(Bloomberg) -- Johnson & Johnson must pay at least $550 million in damages to women who claimed asbestos in the company’s talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer, a St. Louis jury said.
After reaching a unanimous verdict Thursday to award compensatory damages for 22 plaintiffs that averaged $25 million apiece, jurors will resume deliberations over how much to award in punishment damages.
The women also sued a unit of Imerys SA, which supplied the talc to J&J. Imerys Talc America settled before trial on confidential terms. The company agreed to pay at least $5 million to settle the claims, according to two persons familiar with the matter.
Thursday’s $550 million verdict, before any punitive damages, is already the third-largest jury award in the U.S. in 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The largest, for $1 billion, was awarded in May by a Georgia state court to a sexual assault victim.
“While we are disappointed with this decision, the jury has further deliberations to conduct in this trial and we will reserve additional comment until the case is fully completed,” Carol Goodrich, J&J spokeswoman, said in an email.
J&J knew its talc products were contaminated with asbestos and kept this information from reaching the public, Mark Lanier, the plaintiffs’ lawyer told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday. J&J sought to protect the image of Baby Powder as “their sacred cow,’’ he said.
J&J “rigged’’ tests to avoid showing the presence of asbestos, Lanier said. If a test showed the presence of asbestos J&J sent it to a lab the company knew would produce different results, he told the jurors.
J&J denied any contamination with asbestos or any rigged testing. The accusations of suppressing or ignoring tests didn’t make sense, said Peter A. Bicks, the company’s trial counsel.
J&J “hired the best labs in the country year after year after year’’ to test for asbestos, he said. “Then someone at J&J decides to expose babies to asbestos? Why all the testing?’’ Mineral traces in the talc aren’t proof of asbestos contamination, Bicks said. These fibers aren’t asbestos but harmless mineral fragments, he said.
Cases on Appeal
J&J has faced multiple trials in St. Louis over ovarian cancer claims, losing four of the first five to go to trial. Two of those plaintiffs’ verdicts, one for $72 million and the other for $55 million, have been erased on appeal on jurisdictional grounds. The other two are on appeal, facing the same challenges from J&J.
The company has had a better record with judges than juries in the ovarian cancer cases. A separate plaintiffs’ award, for $417 million by a Los Angeles jury in August, was reversed by the trial judge who decided evidence didn’t support the verdict. A New Jersey judge in 2016 stalled lawsuits in that state by tossing two cases set for trial, also finding a lack of scientific evidence.
J&J is also fighting a separate battle with plaintiffs who blame the company’s talc products for their developing mesothelioma, a form of cancer generally found in the lungs, that is linked to asbestos exposure.
In May, jurors in California awarded $25.7 million to a woman who blamed her mesothelioma diagnosis on routinely using talc on children and herself. A South Carolina jury couldn’t reach a verdict on similar claims in the same week as the California verdict.
Those decisions followed a New Jersey jury’s finding in April that J&J and Imerys America must pay $117 million to a banker who claimed his cancer was tied to use of the company’s talc products.
Most of the women in St. Louis trial used baby powder, but others used Shower-to-Shower, another of J&J’s talc-based products. J&J sold the product to Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. in 2012. Valeant now faces suits over the body powder.
The women in the St. Louis trial, whose jobs range from school bus driver to executive director of a job-retraining program, come from states across the country, such as Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and New York. Six of the women have died, so their families are pressing wrongful-death claims against J&J.
More than half of the 95-seat courtroom at closing arguments was occupied by plaintiffs and their relatives. Some wiped away tears as Lanier discussed their ailments. At the start of his argument, he introduced each of the plaintiffs by using a graphic display on the screen and had those present raise their hand.
Listening to the plaintiffs’ accounts of their cancers was “gut-wrenching,’’ Bicks told jurors Wednesday. “But sympathy aside, the plaintiffs have not come anywhere close to proving their case.’’
The lawsuits were initiated by lawyer advertising, Bicks said. The trial was “an attempt to use sympathy in pursuit of a big payday from a deep-pockets defendant.’’
The case is Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, 1522-CC10417, Circuit Court, City of St. Louis, Missouri.
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