A California jury awarded $25.75 million in damages to a plaintiff who alleged that she developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder talc-based products. The jury awarded $21.75 million in compensatory damages and an additional $4 million in punitive damages, finding Johnson & Johnson liable for the entirety of the punitive damages and two-thirds of the compensatory amount. The other defendants named in the lawsuit, including talc suppliers Honeywell/Bendix, Borg Warner, and Fel-Pro, are responsible for the remainder. The verdict comes on the heels of new developments in talc litigation, which focuses on asbestos contamination in cosmetic talc products.
The Allegations at Trial
An Oregon couple, Joanne and Gary Anderson, filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and other defendants in Los Angeles Superior Court after Mrs. Anderson developed pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer that grows in the lining of the lungs and is linked to asbestos exposure. Anderson claimed that continuous use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder was the proximate cause of her illness, alleging that the talc in its products is contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen. Anderson, an avid bowler, used the talc powder in her shoes and on her hands for years, and also used it on her children to treat diaper rash. Plaintiff experts estimated that she came in contact with the contaminated talc powder over 10,000 times. Plaintiffs claim that due to the close proximity between asbestos and talc during the mining process, it is impossible to separate the two minerals from each other, resulting in asbestos contamination in talc-based products.
The plaintiffs argued that Johnson & Johnson has been selling asbestos-contaminated talc products for decades despite knowing its dangers. As Chris Panatier, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, stated, the defendants “engaged in a multi-decade campaign wherein they hid testing data” from regulators, altered reports to make them more favorable, and lied to consumers. In addition to the $25.75 million in compensatory damages, the Los Angeles jury recommended $4 million in punitive damages after finding that the company “acted with malice, oppression, or fraud.”
In response to the favorable verdict, David Greenstone, another attorney for the plaintiffs, released a statement expressing satisfaction with the verdict, stressing that Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder “has contained asbestos for decades” and that “people need to know about this.” As Greenstone stated in a press release: “We are extremely pleased that our clients have found a measure of justice, although nothing can truly compensate them for what they have lost. Our clients are hopeful that this verdict can further bring light to this unbelievable example of corporate misconduct.”
Johnson & Johnson has continued to maintain that its talc products are safe and uncontaminated, and plans to appeal the verdict. As the company’s spokesperson, Carol Goodrich, expressed in a press release: “We are disappointed with the verdict and we will begin the appeals process. We will continue to defend the safety of our product because it does not contain asbestos or cause mesothelioma…Over the past 50 years, multiple independent, non-litigation driven scientific evaluations have been conducted by respected academic institutions and government bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and none have found that the talc in Johnson’s Baby Powder contains asbestos.”
Similar Asbestos-Contaminated Talc Litigation
This is the second time that Johnson & Johnson and its talc suppliers have been found liable for illnesses resulting from asbestos contamination. In April of this year, a New Jersey court awarded $117 million in damages to a man who developed mesothelioma after using Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder products for years. However, these cases are not necessarily a sure win. In November 2017, a California court found in favor of Johnson & Johnson in another similar mesothelioma lawsuit.
Meanwhile, days after the verdict in Anderson’s lawsuit was reached, a South Carolina lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson ended in a mistrial when the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision as to whether the company’s Baby Powder caused the death of the 30-year old female plaintiff who suffered from mesothelioma. The attorneys for Bertila Boyd-Bostic, the decedent, expressed that they intend to retry the case.
Aside from the allegations of asbestos contamination, Johnson & Johnson currently faces over 9,000 lawsuits alleging that its talc-based products cause ovarian cancer. The company will be starting trial next month in Missouri over ovarian cancer claims, and has other similar trials scheduled in July and September. In 2016, Johnson & Johnson and other defendants lost three lawsuits in Missouri state court, with damages awards totaling $50 million, $70 million, and $72 million, respectively, to plaintiffs who developed ovarian cancer after continued use of the company’s products. Notably, however, two New Jersey lawsuits were dismissed after a causal connection between Johnson & Johnson’s products and ovarian cancer could not be established by the plaintiffs’ experts.
Unlike the ovarian cancer cases, in which research is still developing, there has been a more direct causal connection found between asbestos contamination in cosmetic talc products and mesothelioma, per the studies conducted in this area. As both of these types of claims are increasingly tried before the courts, it is likely that issues surrounding talc products can become the next major mass tort litigation.