Johnson & Johnson: Asbestos Litigation Update
In July, jurors in St. Louis hit Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) with one of the largest product liability verdicts in U.S. history–a 4.69 billion award of compensatory and punitive damages to 22 ovarian cancer victims or their survivors. The company has been engulfed in an avalanche of talc-cancer claims. As of July 1, the company faced 10,600 lawsuits on behalf of people alleging they contracted cancer from routine use of talc powders, according to the company’s latest quarterly report. The vast majority of the claims are by ovarian cancer victims who say they contracted the disease from longtime use of the powder for feminine hygiene. The others claim the development of mesothelioma from unknowingly inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers when using talc powders. Talc, the softest known mineral, has a wide range of uses in cosmetic, pharmaceutical and even food products, but talc deposits are sometimes contaminated by naturally occurring asbestos.
To date, plaintiffs have won eight of 12 talc-cancer trials against the drug and consumer products giant, with two cases ending in defense verdicts and one in a jury deadlock. On Monday, September 24, 2018, a mistrial was declared after a California state court jury deadlocked on whether Johnson & Johnson is responsible for the asbestos-related cancer of a woman who blamed her illness on longtime use of contaminated baby powder.
Soon after starting a sixth day of deliberations, jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court told Judge Margaret L. Oldendorf that they were at an impasse, with eight of 12 favoring an award of damages to the plaintiff, Carolyn Weirick. That was one short of the nine votes needed for a verdict on claims that J&J was guilty of negligence, failure to warn about the risk of asbestos, and marketing defective products.
Imerys Talc America, Inc., J&J’s talc supplier and co-defendant, was dismissed from the case after reaching a confidential settlement with Weirick just before jury deliberations began.
Weirick, 59, suffers from mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer strongly associated with asbestos exposure. According to her lawsuit, she had no occupational exposure to asbestos, but over many years had unknowingly inhaled microscopic asbestos fibers when she sprinkled on Johnson’s Baby Powder and another talc powder, Shower to Shower.
In testimony in the case, plaintiff expert and materials scientist William Longo said his microscopic analysis turned up asbestos fibers in an old bottle of talc powder lying around Weirick’s home. Her lawyer also showed jurors internal J&J memos and test reports that he said showed J&J knew for decades that its talc supplies and even finished powders were sometimes tainted by asbestos.
In a 1974 memo, marked as Exhbit 9 and placed in evidence, a J&J official said “our very preliminary calculation indicates that substantial asbestos can be allowed safely in a baby powder.”
In another memo from the same year, marked as Exhibit 69 and placed into evidence, the head of research and development for Windsor Minerals, then a J&J mining subsidiary, wrote of the need to develop ways to purge talc of stray asbestos. Pursuing such methods “is strongly urged by this writer to provide the protection against what are currently considered to be materials presenting a severe health hazard and are potentially present in all talc ores in use at this time.”
Another internal document in 1975 described the company’s approach as being “to initiate studies on talc safety only as dictated by confrontation,” to ”minimize the risk of possible self-generation of scientific data which may be politically or scientifically embarrassing.”
These internal documents provide evidence that J&J has known for years about the adverse health effects of its products, similar to the internal documents uncovered in the tobacco litigation.
Mesothelioma is extremely rare, striking about 3,200 people per year, or one in 100,000 U.S. residents. It has been described as a ”signal tumor” because it is so strongly linked to asbestos exposure, although some research suggests it can result from other causes.
J&J is not the only company to be targeted by talc powder-cancer lawsuits. Colgate Palmolive, which formerly made Cashmere Bouquet powder, faces 222 cases, according to its latest quarterly report.
Currently, another mesothelioma case against J&J is being tried in New Jersey. Colgate and Imerys Talc were also named as co-defendants in that litigation, but have settled the claims against them.
Further documentation of Exhibit 9 & Exhibit 69 can be found here:
Image courtesy of Unsplash.