In 2018, a St. Louis jury awarded $4.69 billion dollars in damages to 22 women, all of whom had a long history of using Johnson & Johnson’s (J & J) talc baby powder, and alleged that the product caused their ovarian cancer. Yesterday, a Missouri appeals court rejected J & J’s request to throw out the jury verdict but reduced the damage award by more than half, to $2.1 billion.
The appeals court ruled that J & J knowingly sold a product that may cause cancer. According to a Reuters investigation from December 2018, executives, scientists, mine managers, doctors and lawyers in the employ of the company were aware as early as 1971 that the powder tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.
According to federal regulatory agencies and the World Health Organization (WHO), there are no known safe levels of asbestos exposure. Inhalation of asbestos particles has been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs and/or other organs. Using the powder in the genital area long-term has been linked to ovarian cancer. A courthouse reporting service states that expert testimony noted that J & J’s talc supplier, Rio Tinto Minerals, warned that there was no safe level of asbestos exposure and that any presence of asbestos in its talc “would be a serious problem.”
Evidence also showed that J & J attempted to manipulate asbestos testing protocols so that lab tests would not be sensitive enough to detect the cancer-causing mineral in talc samples. (Talc mineral and asbestos are often found in close proximity to each other underground.) Furthermore, plaintiff’s evidence demonstrated that for years, J & J was aware of more sensitive and reliable asbestos detecting methods but lobbied the FDA to adopt less detectable standards to promote its own interests.
Eleven of the 22 women named in the 2018 suit are no longer alive. The appeals court reduced the damage award because some of the plaintiffs were not residents of Missouri, and therefore should not have been included in the lawsuit.
Still, the court declared that damages were necessary to show other corporations the consequences of knowingly endangering the public’s health.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the ruling stated, “We find there was significant reprehensibility in defendants’ conduct. The harm suffered by plaintiffs was physical, not just economic.”
The presiding judge in the case wrote, “Plaintiffs each developed and suffered from ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs underwent chemotherapy, hysterectomies, and countless other surgeries. These medical procedures caused them to experience symptoms such as hair loss, sleeplessness, mouth sores, loss of appetite, seizures, nausea, neuropathy, and other infections. Several plaintiffs died, and surviving plaintiffs experience recurrences of cancer and fear of relapse.”
J & J said it will appeal the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. The company is facing nearly 20,000 lawsuits over its talc baby powder, which due to declining sales and negative publicity, led to J & J’s decision last month to discontinue sales of its talc-based powder in North America.
Despite the lawsuits, the company maintains that its talc powder is safe and free of asbestos.
A spokesperson for J & J called the initial jury verdict “fundamentally flawed.”