A circuit judge on December 19 refused to overturn a jury verdict of $4.69 billion in a case that accused Johnson & Johnson of failing to disclose that their baby powder and other talcum powder products contained cancer-causing asbestos. The judge wrote that J&J’s conduct in this case was “particularly reprehensible,” as the company had knowingly targeted a dangerous product to mothers and babies. The 22 women that won the verdict were the first to go to trial on the theory that asbestos contaminated talc products caused their cancer.
This trial unearthed many J&J documents that mention the asbestos problem. A special report by Reuters analyzing the documents revealed that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that their popular baby powder products contained asbestos. Digging through thousands of internal and confidential documents J&J was compelled to produce as a part of ongoing litigation, Reuters found evidence that J&J knew as early as 1971 that their talc products had tested positive for asbestos. The documents show a collection of nervous executives, lawyers and scientists desperately trying to figure out how to solve the problem while never telling the public about the asbestos.
Reuters discovered that as early as 1957 a consulting laboratory had told J&J that their products had contaminants that resembled minerals classified as asbestos. Though J&J reported to the Food and Drug Administration that none of their products contained any asbestos, three different labs in the 1970s had shown that J&J’s supply of talc contained the dangerous minerals, with one saying that the level was “rather high.”
Various government agencies say that there is no safe level of asbestos. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bans the use of asbestos in many products. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that every exposure to asbestos increases the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease, like mesothelioma and other cancers.
People using J&J’s baby powder and other talc products had long suspected that these products caused their cancers, but could not figure out why. These new documents suggest that asbestos in the talc may be the culprit. Almost 12,000 plaintiffs have filed suit against J&J, many claiming that their talc products caused ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.
The discovery of these documents and the subsequent reports about just how much J&J knew has caused stock in the company to plunge. The drop caused the total value of the shares in J&J to drop by $50.2 billion. But J&J continues to pursue an aggressive strategy in their litigation despite some large verdicts against the company. Sometimes this strategy has paid off, with some cases reaching mistrials. However, analysts have suggested that if the $4.7 billion verdict becomes the standard in these talcum powder cases, J&J’s total liability could exceed $100 billion. The public relation hits and legal costs may very well push J&J toward settlement to minimize the damage.
The damage to talc-based products, however, has been done. Doctors are openly questioning whether they can continue to recommend baby powder to their patients. Governments have issued warnings that use of talc products risks developing cancer. Lawsuits continue to pile up. Perhaps it is time for talcum powder to go the way of the leech and the lobotomy.
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