A jury in Johnson & Johnson's home state of New Jersey ordered the health care and cosmetic products giant to pay punitive damages of $750 million in a talc mesothelioma case last week. The verdict comes on top of $37 million in compensatory damages awarded to four plaintiffs who claimed their disease was caused by asbestos-contaminated talc.
The jury reached their conclusion after hearing two weeks of evidence. The case represents the fifth loss for Johnson & Johnson, although it prevailed or managed to get verdicts overturned on appeal in eight other cases. Nonetheless, the company that once claimed the title of “Most Trusted Brand in America” still faces over 16,000 additional asbestos cancer lawsuits, a third of which have been filed in the past year.
According to a report by FiercePharma, the evidence presented at the trial included testimony from Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, who has already been under federal scrutiny since the publication of an explosive Reuters investigation in 2018. In addition to queries over what the company knew about asbestos contamination of its talc, Gorsky was also questioned about a well-timed stock trade carried out just prior to the release of the Reuters report.
Gorsky has consistently defended J&J products, but oddly, said “no” to the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy when asked to appear and explain why he believed the company's talc to be asbestos-free. Claiming Gorsky was “no expert” on the subject, J&J offered to send a scientist with a background in talc testing instead.
That offer was rejected.
Although J&J has had a fair amount of success defending itself from talc claims, future victories have been threatened since testing by the FDA in October revealed traces of asbestos in a number of bottles. Later on, J&J ran its own tests, which it claims failed to detect any asbestos. Nonetheless, the FDA stood by its findings and held a public meeting on talc testing for cosmetics on February 4th.
Mesothelioma, a particularly deadly form of cancer that affects the visceral lining surrounding the heart, lungs, and other internal organs, has only two known causes. One of these is radiation exposure, which can occur during treatments for other cancers. The other cause is asbestos exposure, which accounts for over 80 percent of all known cases of mesothelioma.
Judge Ana Viscomi, who presided over the recent trial, was obliged to reduce the $750 million judgment to $186.5 million in accordance with a New Jersey law limiting punitive damages to five times the amount of compensatory damages.