Top 5 Product Liability Stories of 2020

Legal News

While the coronavirus pandemic received most of the media attention in 2020, there were several high-profile lawsuits involving pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices and consumer goods. Here are some of the biggest legal headlines from this past year. 

#1: Bayer Settles Roundup Lawsuits For Over $10 Billion

In May, Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical giant that inherited Monsanto’s Roundup Weed Killer lawsuits in 2018 for $63 billion, announced that it was settling approximately 90,000 out of 125,000 Roundup cancer lawsuits for over $8 billion. Another $1.25 billion was to be set aside for future Roundup lawsuits. However, a judge rejected Bayer’s proposal to settle unresolved Roundup claims. 

Bayer also faces over 3,000 lawsuits filed at the federal level, which are not part of the state-level claims that are part of the $10 billion settlement. In early November, Bayer acknowledged it would likely have to pay in excess of $2 billion to settle future Roundup claims, in which plaintiffs allege that the herbicide caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymph nodes and infection-fighting white blood cells. 

#2: First Roundup Trial Victory Upheld

Only three Roundup lawsuits have gone to trial. All three have resulted in multi-million-dollar verdicts for the plaintiffs. The first plaintiff to successfully sue Monsanto, the company which bought Roundup Weed Killer to market in 1974 and glyphosate-resistant crop seeds in the mid-1990s, was former San Francisco Bay Area groundskeeper, Dwayne “Lee” Johnson. (Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in Roundup herbicides.)

Johnson was awarded $289 million by a jury in a 2018 trial that concluded in August, just two months after Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto was finalized. Although Johnson’s reward has been reduced two times to the current $20.5 million, in October the Supreme Court of California rejected Bayer’s request to review the appellate court ruling that confirmed the lower court verdict

#3: Over 200,000 Veterans Sue 3M Over Defective Earplugs

In perhaps the biggest legal news story to fly under the radar, more than 220,000 active or former U.S. military personnel have filed lawsuits against 3M because of a design flaw in the company’s Combat Arms V2 Earplugs. The double-ended earplugs were supposed to have protected servicemen and women from loud noises on the battlefield while allowing the soldiers to hear officer commands. The flaw in the design caused the earplugs to fit too loosely, albeit at an imperceptible level. 

Active or former U.S. military personnel that have filed claims against 3M allege that the design flaw caused them to develop hearing loss and/or tinnitus, a condition characterized by a phantom ringing or buzzing sound in the inner ear. Hearing loss and tinnitus are the top two medical claims paid out by the Veterans Administration (VA).

#4: Victory For 22 Women Damaged By Tainted Talc Upheld By Missouri High Court

There were several big talc stories in 2020, including the news during May that Johnson & Johnson would discontinue selling talcum-based baby powder in North American stores. 

But the biggest legal news involving asbestos-tainted talc was announced towards the end of the year, first in October, when Johnson & Johnson announced it would settle the first 1,000 of approximately 20,000 talcum powder lawsuits for $100 million. Then, the following month, an appeals court in Missouri upheld a lower court’s decision that ruled in favor of 22 women who allegedly developed ovarian cancer because they used Johnson & Johnson talc baby powder for several years. Originally, the 22 women—six of which have died from ovarian cancer—were awarded $4.7 billion in a 2018 trial. The appeals court reduced the award to $2.1 billion. 

Johnson & Johnson requested a review of the appeal court’s decision by the Supreme Court of Missouri. But that state’s high court refused to review the decision

Runner up: A New York judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay a New York couple $120 million in compensatory damages. The married couple alleges that accidental inhalation of contaminated talc caused them to develop mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs. 

#5: Zantac Manufacturers Seek Dismissal Of Class-Action Lawsuits

Thus far, hundreds of individual lawsuits have been filed against makers of the popular antacid drug, Zantac. In April of 2020, the FDA requested that all products containing ranitidine, the generic version of Zantac, be removed from the marketplace. The FDA issued the request after the agency and an independent lab verified the presence of a carcinogenic compound—NDMA. 

It was determined that the level of NDMA increases the longer Zantac is stored. The contaminant also develops due to how ranitidine is processed. 

Ranitidine manufacturers, including Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuits, asserting that the class action “fails to allege a true injury-in-fact.” But plaintiffs responded to the motion with an opposition response, alleging that Zantac and other ranitidine products are so unsafe that they are illegal to buy or sell, and are also economically worthless. Furthermore, they  give rise to injury when people purchase them.

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