Talc lawyer says J&J's multibillion-dollar stock woes make settling look like a better deal

Johnson & Johnson faces about 11,700 lawsuits alleging harm from talc, according to a recent securities filing. (J&J)

What's bad for Johnson & Johnson shares is good for the trial lawyer leading the charge in the talc liability litigation—or so the lawyer says, as J&J scrambles to contain the damage from a bombshell Reuters report Friday.

After the news service said J&J had hidden asbestos it found in some talc samples, a massive selloff took $40 billion off the company's shares. And as J&J and its CEO countered the news coverage, plaintiffs' lawyer Mark Lanier told CNBC that the selloff strengthened his hand.

Think of it as the liability litigator's version of a stock-shorting report. Lanier served as one of Reuters' sources and provided photos for its story, whose allegations J&J has vociferously denied. And this week, after the stock plummeted, Lanier told the news outlet that the market-cap loss makes settling the litigation more attractive.

The company's talc “problems can be resolved for much, much less than” the tens of billions J&J lost in market value, said Lanier, who led the team that secured a massive $4.69 billion talc verdict against J&J this summer. The company has since appealed.

It “serves my purposes as a litigator to say, ‘Yes, get their attention; keep driving the stock down,'" Lanier said during the interview.

Indeed, on Friday, J.P. Morgan analyst Chris Schott assessed the 10% stock drop as an “over-reaction” because J&J’s potential talc liability won’t come close to the company’s lost market value, which was about $40 billion at the time.

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Reuters' Friday report, based on court documents filed on both sides of the contentious litigation, said that J&J had found asbestos in some talc samples from the 1970s to the 2000s. J&J, for its part, says Reuters “misrepresented J&J, our product, our actions, and the science about talc.” The company argues that Reuters “misled its readers by printing inaccurate statements [and] withholding crucial information that otherwise undermines its thesis.”

J&J took its argument to consumers on Monday in the form of an ad in major print and online news publications, and CEO Alex Gorsky rebuffed the allegations in a company-made video. 

“We know that our talc is safe,” Gorsky said in the video. “In fact, for over 100 years, Johnson & Johnson has known that the talc in our baby powder, is the purest, safest, pharmaceutical grade talc on earth.” If J&J believed the product was unsafe, it would be “off the shelves and out of the market immediately," he said.

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J&J has been defending its key product for several years against thousands of lawsuits alleging the product causes ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Although the powder isn’t a huge revenue source for the healthcare conglomerate, it’s closely tied with J&J’s image. So far, the company has suffered several multimillion-dollar losses in court, but in many instances, J&J has been able to overturn the verdicts on appeal. 

In a trial combining the claims of 22 women represented by Lanier, this summer J&J  suffered its biggest defeat yet in the form of a $4.6 billion jury verdict.

Along with other recent developments, authorities in India on Wednesday launched an investigation into talc safety, Reuters reports.