Jury smacks J&J with $325M talc verdict after a series of other wins

After recent wins and losses, Johnson & Johnson capped the month of May with a major setback in its talc litigation. A New York City jury slapped the drugmaker with a $325 million verdict Friday over claims asbestos in its talc caused plaintiff Donna Olson to develop mesothelioma. 

After a 4-month trial, jurors ordered the company to pay $300 million in punitive damages, $20 million for Olson’s past and future pain, plus $5 million to her husband for loss of consortium.

J&J said it plans to appeal, just as it has in the other talc cases it has lost. Spokeswoman Kim Montagnino said the trial "suffered significant legal and evidentiary errors which Johnson & Johnson believes will warrant a reversal on appeal."

"Decades of tests by independent experts and academic institutions repeatedly confirm that Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer," she added.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they presented internal J&J documents dating back to the 1960s and 1970s demonstrating the company knew its baby powder contained asbestos. Instead of placing a warning on the product or switching to a talc alternative, J&J changed its testing methods to those that couldn’t detect asbestos. Then, the company misled the public and regulators with results from those new testing methods, the attorneys said.

J&J argued that its powder never contained asbestos. But the jury sided with the plaintiffs and concluded the company knew for decades about potential harm from the product. Jurors also concluded that Olson’s regular use of the powder over the years caused her to develop mesothelioma. 

Olson’s verdict is among the largest to date in J&J’s long-running talc litigation. Last summer, jurors in St. Louis handed over a $4.69 billion decision against the company after a trial that combined the claims of 22 women. J&J said it would appeal. Before that, a California plaintiff scored a $417 million verdict, but J&J won its appeal in that case. 

In recent months, J&J has chalked up both wins and losses. Late last month, the company won a case in South Carolina but suffered a $25 million loss in New York on the same day. The company has prevailed in five cases in recent months. In March, the company won a case in New Jersey but suffered a $29 million loss in California. 

Each verdict against J&J that has made its way through the appeals process has been overturned, Montagnino said.

All told, J&J faces about 14,200 talc injury cases, according to its most recent quarterly filing with the SEC. 

Talc litigation has been weighing on J&J shares for years, but the pressure ramped up late last year when Reuters published a report stating that the drugmaker concealed asbestos in its talc for decades. J&J’s share prices have declined about 11% since the report. 

Aside from talc litigation, J&J is the only remaining defendant in an Oklahoma opioid trial after Teva and Purdue settled for a total of $355 million. In opening remarks last week, Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter accused the company of a “deceitful, multibillion-dollar brainwashing campaign.” J&J denied wrongdoing and argues it marketed opioid painkillers responsibly, BBC reports.