Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $4.69 bn damages in talc cancer case

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Almost two dozen women who claimed asbestos in Johnson & Johnson talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer were awarded $550 million in damages by a St Louis jury in the first case against the company that focused on asbestos in the powder.

The jury later added $4.1 billion (around Rs 28,100 crore) in punitive damages.

Their lawyers alleged the company knew its talcum powder was contaminated with asbestos since the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.

The lawyer for the 22 women in this most recent case said in a statement following the ruling that Johnson & Johnson should pull its product "before causing further anguish, harm, and death from a bad disease".

During Wednesday's closings of the trial's first phase, plaintiffs' attorney Mark Lanier did not request a specific damage award but urged jurors to write their figures "in big letters".

"This was a new theory and the jury lined up behind it", Jean Eggen, a Widener University law professor who teaches about mass-tort cases told Bloomberg."That may be a harbinger of things to come and there are many more ovarian cancer cases than asbestos cases tied to the powder".

The victims' lawyer, Mark Lanier, said they had used the talc for personal hygiene.

J&J says it will appeal the latest verdict, which it argues is "the product of a fundamentally unfair process". J&J sought to protect the image of Baby Powder as "their sacred cow", he said.

"For over 40 years, Johnson & Johnson has covered up the evidence of asbestos in their products", Lanier said in a press release issued immediately following the verdict.

Johnson & Johnson vehemently denies that their product is unsafe and vowed to appeal the verdict. Imerys SA, the company that supplied the powder was also sued and settled the claim for $5 million.

The women who sued, whose jobs range from school bus driver to executive director of a job-retraining program, come from states including Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and NY.

The company has been sued by more than 9,000 women who claim its talcum powder contributed to their ovarian cancer. The risky strategy allows earlier plaintiffs to send signals about legal tactics and their award amounts to women who bring cases later. A court in California ruled on a similar case against the cosmetics company past year, calling on it to pay $417 million. Several other cases have involved sizeable damages, including a $417 million verdict reached by jurors in Los Angeles County Superior Court past year.

As this blog post points out, Johnson & Johnson has been hit with some million-dollar punitive damages awards in other talcum powder cases. However, there are experts who are still concerned about the safety of talc today, despite new asbestos-free formulas.

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