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J&J Absorbs Another Big Loss in Baby Powder-Mesothelioma Case

For the second time in less than two months, Johnson & Johnson has suffered a big courtroom loss in a case that blamed a rare asbestos-related cancer on long-term use of contaminated baby powder.

A state court jury in Southern California today ordered the drug and consumer products giant to pay $4 million in punitive damages to mesothelioma victim Joanne Anderson and her husband, Gary Anderson. Added to a compensatory damages award Wednesday of more than $21.7 million, the total verdict came to about $25.7 million.

The verdict capped a 3½-week trial in the suburban West Covina branch of Los Angeles  Superior Court. It marked J&J’s second straight defeat in a talc powder-mesothelioma case, following a New Jersey jury’s $117 million award last month to banker Stephen Lanzo. That verdict was against both J&J and its talc supplier Imerys Talc America, Inc..

Joanne Anderson, now in her late 60s, is a former Los Angeles County resident now living in Oregon. In 2016, she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer strongly linked to asbestos exposure.  Her lawsuit claimed that breathing microscopic asbestos fibers during thousands of applications of baby powder was a substantial factor in causing her illness. An avid bowler for 25 years, she routinely used the powder to dry her hands, along with sprinkling it on her children when they were babies, according to testimony in the case.

“We are disappointed with the verdict and we will begin the appeals process,” J&J spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said in a statement following the punitive damages verdict.  “We will continue to defend the safety of our product because it does not contain asbestos or cause mesothelioma. ”

Chris Panatier, one of the Andersons’ lawyers, said the verdict affirmed that J&J had ”engaged in a multi-decade campaign wherein they hid testing data from the FDA, altered reports to make them more favorable and lied to consumers …We can only hope these verdicts help J&J see what the rest of us do,” he said. “They are selling cancer-causing powder for use on the most helpless of us, children.”

Lawyers for the Andersons introduced test reports appearing to show that J&J officials knew their talc supplies sometimes contained trace levels of asbestos fibers. A company document from 1974, for example, said “our very preliminary calculation indicates that substantial asbestos can be allowed safely in a baby powder” .

But J&J lawyers argued that the company’s talc powders have never contained asbestos, and that stray minerals sometimes found in its talc were actually something else. They asserted that many cases of mesothelioma in women are spontaneous or stem from unknown causes. And they cited  the grim cancer history of Joanne Anderson’s family, noting that various forms of the disease had stricken her father, mother, sister and aunt.

Talc, the softest known mineral, has a wide range of uses in cosmetic, pharmaceutical and even food products, but talc deposits are sometimes contaminated by naturally occurring asbestos.
The jury of eight men and four women found J&J liable for negligence as well as for failing to warn of the risks of asbestos contamination and for making a defective product that was ”a substantial factor” in causing Joanne Anderson’s illness. They also found the company had acted with ”malice, oppression or fraud,” setting the stage for the $4 million punitive damages award.

Although compensatory damages–for economic losses, including medical bills, and pain and suffering–came to more than $21.7 million, J&J was deemed responsible for just two-thirds. That’s because the Andersons previously had reached undisclosed settlements with makers of asbestos-containing auto parts they had used in repairing their vehicles. That whittled J&J’s portion of the compensatory damages to about $14.9 million.

In the last three years, J&J has been engulfed by lawsuits alleging that its baby powder, and a second talc powder called Shower to Shower, have caused cancer. The number of cases is rising fast.

As of Dec. 31, about 6,610 baby powder claims had been lodged against the company, according to J&J’s annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.  But in its most recent quarterly report, J&J said that as of April 1, about 9,100 plaintiffs had suits against the company related to talc powders. Although no breakdown was given, the vast majority of the lawsuits do not involve mesothelioma, but cases of ovarian cancer allegedly caused by feminine hygiene use of talc powders.

The Anderson case was only the third talc-mesothelioma claim tried to a verdict. J&J won a defense verdict in the first case last fall, followed by the two more recent defeats.

J&J has lost five of the six ovarian cancer cases that have been tried,  with aggregate jury awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But some of the judgments have been wiped out by post-trial rulings or appeals–including a $417 million verdict last August in Los Angeles.

May 25, 2018 update: A baby powder-mesothelioma case in South Carolina ended in a mistrial today, after jurors said they were hopelessly deadlocked on whether to hold Johnson & Johnson responsible for the mesothelioma death of Bertila Boyd-Boystic. Her husband’s lawsuit blamed her death on use of contaminated talc powder.