J&J, 2-stepping through talc litigation, faces fresh claims it hid workers' asbestos exposure

Johnson & Johnson’s yearslong talc litigation saga has taken an unexpected turn.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan this week denied J&J’s bid to block a lawsuit accusing the company of hiding evidence that its industrial talc operations exposed workers to asbestos, Bloomberg first reported.

Decades back, J&J owned the talc mine Windsor Minerals, which produced material used in baby powder and other products, Bloomberg said. The company sold off Windsor Minerals in the late 1980s.

While most of the company’s existing talc lawsuits have been filed on behalf of female customers, this proposed lawsuit comes from the family of a man who originally sued J&J back in 1986. The Windsor worker ultimately dropped his case after J&J produced sworn testimony claiming tests never showed J&J’s industrial talc contained asbestos, according to court documents summarized by Bloomberg. The man died in 1994.

Now, citing new evidence to support claims that the company's testimony was false, his family plans to sue J&J, the news outlet said. Lawyers for the family allege the false information from J&J derailed thousands of asbestos exposure lawsuits against the company, Bloomberg added.

J&J, for its part, has long maintained that the talc in its products is free from asbestos. The company “denies the claims brought forth in this suit and will defend the case if it proceeds,” a company spokesperson said over email.

“We stand by the safety of the talc sold by Windsor Minerals, which was once a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary,” J&J’s spokesperson added.

The development comes as J&J defends itself against more than 40,000 cases claiming the talc in its popular line of baby powder causes cancer. In October, J&J created the company LTL Management to absorb liabilities linked to its talc litigation in a strategy known as the “Texas two-step." Under the strategy, the subsidiary immediately filed for bankruptcy protection.

As the bankruptcy process plays out, jury trials for those talc injury lawsuits have been put on hold.

Unfortunately for J&J, the latest proposed lawsuit differs enough from the baby powder cases to go forward, Kaplan ruled Tuesday.

Even as it dances the Texas two-step, J&J hasn’t been immune to talc scrutiny this year. In February, it came to light that activist investor platform Tulipshare wanted to leverage a vote to halt worldwide sales of J&J’s talc-based powder.

J&J hit back, asking the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to exclude Tulipshare’s proposal from its annual proxy filing.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg in March reported that J&J in 1971 funded a study that injected 10 Pennsylvania prisoners with asbestos, according to recently unsealed court documents. J&J wanted to compare the mineral's effect on the inmates’ skin versus talc.

When Fierce Pharma reached out for comment, J&J stressed its focus on bioethics but defended the experiment as acceptable at the time.

“We deeply regret the conditions under which these studies were conducted, and in no way do they reflect the values or practices we employ today,” a J&J spokesperson said at the time.

“At the time of these studies, nearly 50 years ago, testing of this nature among this cohort set was widely accepted, including by prominent researchers, leading public companies, and the U.S. government itself,” she continued.