A Round-Up of the Biggest Products Liability Lawsuits of 2019

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

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— Updated on June 25, 2020

A Round-Up of the Biggest Products Liability Lawsuits of 2019

Oxycodone is the generic name for a range of opoid pain killing tablets. Prescription bottle for Oxycodone tablets and pills on slate table with USA flag in background

Product liability lawsuits are important to keep watch on not just for the legal ramifications but also for the consequences a defective product or device could have on one’s day-to-day life and well-being. Although not all product liability lawsuits make it to trial, the ones that do provide insight into the future viability of other similar claims. Likewise, a substantially large verdict award can set the tone for litigation to come.

In 2019, there were multiple product liability verdicts that made headlines for their substantial sums, all of which would not have been achieved without the help of expert witnesses. Below are just a few examples.

Monsanto’s $2 Billion Verdict for Cancer-Causing Weedkiller

The agrochemical conglomerate, Monsanto, has faced thousands of lawsuits from plaintiffs claiming that the company’s infamous glyphosate-based weed killer, Roundup, causes cancer. Last year, the case of Johnson v. Monsanto was the first of its kind to go to trial, acting as a bellwether for the numerous pending lawsuits that were consolidated by United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation for the Northern District of California. In Johnson, the San Francisco jury awarded the plaintiff $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages (the latter of which was reduced by the judge to $39 million). The jury found that Roundup caused the plaintiff’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, finding that Monsanto failed to warn him and other consumers about the risks associated with its weed killer.

This year, another massive verdict was awarded against Monsanto on the same basis. In one of only three cases to go to trial in the matter, plaintiffs Alva Pilliod, and his wife, Alberta Pilliod, were awarded $2.055 billion in damages, $2 billion of which were punitive damages, after developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Unlike the other Roundup trials, the Pilliod trial was allowed to present evidence concerning whether Monsanto knew of the carcinogenic effects of its products and whether they purposely manipulated scientific experts and regulatory agencies. The evidence at trial included emails between Monsanto executives and representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the latter of which has recently announced that glyphosate (Roundup’s main ingredient) does not cause cancer. Despite the EPA’s claims, the jury in the Pilliod trial felt differently, making the damages award the eighth largest in U.S. history.

Johnson & Johnson’s $8 Billion Risperdal Verdict

In October of this year, a Philadelphia jury found Johnson & Johnson liable for deliberately deceptive marketing practices of its anti-psychotic drug, Risperdal, after male plaintiffs developed gynecomastia, a condition that causes breast tissue growth in young males. The plaintiff developed gynoecomastia after starting the drug in 2003, at age 9, to treat symptoms of Autism. The lawsuit accused the company of falsely marketing the drug to children and failing to warn doctors of the side effects. Although Johnson & Johnson has a long history of litigation over Risperdal, the astounding $8 billion verdict was the first to award such punitive damages. As established at trial by neurologists and endocrinologists, the drug creates a hormonal imbalance which stimulates the pituitary gland and elevates levels of prolactin, a hormone that is related to female breast development and lactation in nursing mothers. There are currently 13,400 individuals suing Johnson & Johnson over the effects of Risperdal. While the amount of punitive damages will likely be reduced on appeal, punitive damages were not even possible until an appeals court ruled that such verdicts can go beyond solely compensatory damages. Thus, it is likely that future verdicts may see similar punitive awards.

Johnson & Johnson and the Opioid Crisis

In another landmark case against Johnson & Johnson, an Oklahoma judge found the company liable for its role in the opioid crisis, ordering a judgment of $572 million in damages (which was later reduced to $465 million). The judge found that the award is representative of a year’s worth of drug treatment and other programs for the victims. While dozens of states have brought lawsuits against the company for its distribution and marketing practices of pain medication, Oklahoma was the first state to bring the case to trial and the first court to find an opioid manufacturer responsible for damages.

The trial of Johnson & Johnson marked a pivotal turning point for the opioid epidemic plaguing the country, which has resulted in over 700,000 deaths between 1999 and 2017. The lawsuit alleged that the drug makers purposely concealed the dangerous addictive elements of its products in an effort to increase sales. Johnson & Johnson, through its contracts with poppy grower in Tasmania, is responsible for supplying 60% of opiate ingredients used in pain medications. Johnson & Johnson also made its own opioids through a subsidiary company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, as well as its own patches of the potent opioid, fentanyl. The company The court found that the company’s manufacturing and marketing practices contributed to the deaths of more than 6,000 Oklahomans who have become addicted to pain medications over the years. The court calculated the damages by estimating the costs involved in remedying the complex opioid epidemic in a state where 18 million opioid prescriptions were written between 2015 and 2018 for a population of 3.9 million.

With thousands of similar cases pending against Johnson & Johnson and other opioid manufacturers, the Oklahoma verdict is precedential and indicative of lawsuits to come. In fact, the Oklahoma trial likely contributed to Johnson & Johnson’s $20.4 million settlement with two Ohio counties prior to trial.

Though by no means an exhaustive list, the above cases are precedential not just for their monetary amounts but for their widespread implications on litigation going forward in 2020.

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