The conglomerate Johnson & Johnson has been no stranger to litigation, as thousands of pending lawsuits allege that the company’s talc products are contaminated with asbestos. Consumers are claiming that they developed mesothelioma and ovarian cancer as a result of the contamination. This past year, a number of cases have gone to trial with mixed success, but when juries have found in favor of the plaintiffs, the damages have been substantial. For example, a Missouri jury notably awarded plaintiffs $4.7 billion in damages for developing ovarian cancer found to be linked to Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder products. The verdict was the sixth-largest products liability award in U.S. history. Most recently, a California jury awarded a $29.4 million verdict to a woman who developed mesothelioma from Johnson & Johnson talc powder products. The verdict comes on the hinges of a pivotal turning point for the company, as the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as Congressional committees are beginning to take notice of the lawsuit allegations and jury findings. It is likely 2019 will be a telling year for Johnson & Johnson’s future.
The California Trial
Teresa Leavitt received a diagnosis of mesothelioma in August 2017 after 30 years of using Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based products. In her complaint against the company, the plaintiff alleged that her mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure, was due to her regular use of talcum powder. The complaint alleged that, for decades, the company “possessed medical and scientific data that raised concerns regarding the presence of asbestos in talcum powder and that demonstrated the existence of health hazards to those exposed to asbestos-containing talcum powder products.” The two-month trial included nearly a dozen experts on both sides arguing for and against the validity of the asbestos-contamination claims. Interestingly, Leavitt’s case was the first to go to trial since Reuters published a December 2018 report disclosing internal Johnson & Johnson documents indicating that the company knew their products were contaminated with asbestos and failed to disclose the information to the public.
Ultimately, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding $24.4 million to Teresa Leavitt and $5 million to her spouse in compensatory damages. The jury found that Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based products were defective and that the company failed to warn consumers about the health risks, holding them 98% responsible for the damages. The company states that it will be appealing the verdict.
Ongoing Litigation and Investigation
As of now, another significant trial against Johnson & Johnson is underway in New Jersey Superior Court. Similar to the other lawsuits, the plaintiff, Ricardo Rimondi, alleges he developed mesothelioma from Johnson & Johnson products. The trial has since become a battle of the experts. The plaintiff’s leading expert witness testified that he found asbestos in the Johnson & Johnson talc powder that he had sampled for testing. The plaintiff’s medical expert testified that there is no safe level of asbestos, and that the less-sensitive testing methods in previous decades could result in a percentage of asbestos making its way into talc products. The defense expert, a mineralogist and geologist, Matthew Sanchez, contested this claim, arguing that the plaintiff experts were confusing other common minerals with asbestos and that the plaintiff’s expert lied about the asbestos content in tested talc samples. The jury’s verdict is set to be announced shortly.
Since the influx of trials and 14,000 pending lawsuits, the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has subpoenaed Johnson & Johnson to produce documents. The company has stated that they will cooperate with government inquiries.
Recently, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy conducted a hearing to examine the scientific evidence of health risks from long-term use of talc products. An epidemiologist testified that asbestos-contaminated talc does significantly increase the risk of cancer. The subcommittee states that it intends to conduct further inquiry into the safety of talc and to evaluate the steps that may be taken to prevent cancer caused by talc-based, personal care products.
With thousands of cases pending in the court docket and federal investigations underway, it will certainly be an interesting year for Johnson & Johnson as well as the litigants affected by these products.