W. Mark Lanier: Jury awards $550 million to plaintiffs in talcum powder lawsuit
By Joel Currier and Robert Patrick St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS A St. Louis jury Thursday awarded $550 million for the plaintiffs who sued health care giant Johnson & Johnson over claims its talcum powder caused ovarian cancer in women who used the company's products for years.
This trial, which began June 4 in St. Louis Circuit Court, had 22 plaintiffs making claims against the company.The jury basically awarded $25 million to each family who sued, including six plaintiffs who sued on behalf of relatives who died and other plaintiffs who had a spouse who claimed health effects. Punitive damages are still to be decided.
The trial differed from five previous talcum powder cases by focusing on the women's claims their ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos allegedly found Johnson & Johnson's baby powder.
It's the country's first such talcum powder trial against Johnson & Johnson testing those claims. Plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier of Houston told St. Louis jurors they were the first to see internal company documents revealing knowledge of abestos in products or failures to warn consumers.
"Your voice is not just the voice of the community but the voice of the world," Lanier told jurors Wednesday in his closing argument. "You don't jack with people's lives like this. ... It's just not right."
As the verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs were being read, a sheriff's deputy walked down the row of seats in the packed courtroom, handing out tissues to plaintiffs and their relatives.
Jurors are now deciding punitive damages. They will decide on one figure to cover all the plaintiffs rather than determining damages for each plaintiff.
Each side was given 10 minutes to argue over the appropriate punitive award after jurors were told Johnson and Johnson was worth $63 billion in 2018 and Johnson and Johnson Consumer Inc. was worth $13 billion in 2017.
Lanier started by telling them, "I don't have the words to say thank you."
He said each unanimous verdict in the first phase of the trial was "a message in itself." But he asked jurors to use their punitive verdict to "say something Johnson and Johnson will hear."
"You can change the world," he told them.
Morton Dubin, a Johnson and Johnson lawyer, told jurors "You've sent a very powerful message" with the first verdict, worth over half a billion dollars. He said that the verdict was "difficult to hear," adding that the talcum powder business represented only a small percentage of the company.
Asbestos is a mineral that has been linked to mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
The company's lawyers have rejected claims of asbestos in its baby powder and maintains that its products are safe. Throughout previous trials and appeals in St. Louis, the company has issued statements denying any link between talc and ovariancancer.
Johnson & Johnson's lawyer Peter Bicks criticized the plantiffs' case and paid experts as "science for hire," saying the company for years has exceeded industry standards in testing its talcum powder for asbestos.
He said plaintiffs had failed to prove Johnson & Johnson's products caused or contributed to the women's cancer, citing several scientific studies and conclusions by U.S. government agencies finding the company's products safe and without asbestos.
"Yes, this is terrible," Bicks said of the women's cancer. "But just because something terrible happened doesn't mean Johnson & Johnson had anything to do with it."
In this case, one of Johnson & Johnson's suppliers Imerys SA settled out of court for $5 million, according to aBloomberg Newsreport. Johnson & Johnson faces lawsuits nationwide from more than 9,000 plaintiffs seeking to link talc to ovarian cancer.
Five of the 22 plaintiffs in the latest trial are Missouri residents, two of whom have died. Six of the 22 plaintiffs have died of ovarian cancer. Other plaintiffs are from states that include Arizona, New York, North Dakota, California, Georgia, the Carolinas and Texas.
One of the surviving plaintiffs is Gail Ingham, 73, of O'Fallon, Mo., a mother of two boys who worked in payroll at Mallinckrodt for two decades before finishing her career at Boeing. She said in a recent interview that she was diagnosed with stage-3 ovarian cancer in 1985 and underwent a year's worth of chemotherapy treatments, surgeries and drug treatments. She was declared free of cancer in the early 1990s, she said.
Ingham, who used baby powder for decades, wrote a book about her experiences that includes survival tips, ways to stay healthy and recipes for good nutrition.
She said her fight with cancer was "earth-shaking" and that she's grateful to have survived it, adding that she joined the lawsuit because women who use baby powder "need to know what's in there. They need to know what's going on. Women need to know because they're putting it on their babies."
Another plaintiff is Karen Hawk, 67, of Kansas City, a mother of five who used baby powder most of her life. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and beat it in 2008.
"That's why I feel this trial is so important for the women who are using it," Hawk said. "I hope it gets taken off the market. People don't know what they're dealing with."
Previous talcum powder trials in St. Louis have ended in multimillion verdicts against Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson earned a defense verdict in one of those trials anda reversal last fall of a $72 million plaintiff's verdicton appeal.
Last year,the U.S. Supreme Court imposed limitson where injury lawsuits can be filed. In June,a Missouri appeals court threw out a $55 million verdictagainst Johnson & Johnson, citing the Supreme Court ruling.