Johnson & Johnson shares dip after massive talcum powder judgment

J&J denies claims its talc products contain asbestos

J&J denies claims its talc products contain asbestos

Johnson & Johnson must pay US$4.14 billion in punitive damages to women who claimed asbestos in the company's talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

As the verdict was read in court, the first eight of 22 plaintiffs were each awarded US$25-million - and damages were still being announced for the other 14 plaintiffs.

The prosecution argued that Johnson & Johnson were aware that its talc is contaminated with asbestos since 1970s but did not warn their customers about the risks involved.

Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said in a statement that the company believes its products are safe and will pursue "all available appellate remedies". Six out of the 22 women represented in court have succumbed to ovarian cancer.

The verdict is the largest the company has faced to date over allegations that its products, including baby powder, cause cancer. J&J denies both that its talc products cause cancer and that they ever contained asbestos.

Five previous cases have been decided and Johnson & Johnson has appealed those that it lost. Concerns about a link between talc and ovarian cancer started surfacing around 1971, when scientists wrote about finding talc particles embedded in ovarian and cervical tumor tissue. Divan writes that despite the eye-catching headlines, in the majority of the talc lawsuits (more than 9,000 as of the first quarter), which have produced higher damage awards, the company has been able to overturn most of the unfavorable rulings.

Lawyers said asbestos fibres and talc particles were found in the ovarian tissues of numerous women.

The women in the St Louis trial, whose jobs range from school bus driver to executive director of a job retraining programme, come from states across the country, including Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and NY. The risky strategy allows earlier plaintiffs to send signals about legal tactics and their award amounts to women who bring cases later.

As this blog post points out, Johnson & Johnson has been hit with some million-dollar punitive damages awards in other talcum powder cases.

J&J's statement reiterated its contention that its talc is asbestos-free and promised to challenge the decision.

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. The U.S. Supreme Court has said such punishment awards must be proportional to compensatory damage verdicts that underlie them. A court in California ruled on a similar case against the cosmetics company a year ago, calling on it to pay $417 million.

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