Earlier this month, Johnson & Johnson, along with its talc supplier, a unit of Imerys SA, were hit with a $37 million verdict in compensatory damages over claims that a New Jersey resident contracted cancer from using talc powder products that contained asbestos. Then, just one week after this huge blow to the industry giants, the companies were ordered to pay an additional $80 million on punitive damages, as well.
Steven Lanzo, age 46, said that he was exposed to asbestos by inhaling dust from baby powder over the span of 40 years. In 2016, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is an aggressive form of cancer that develops in the lungs, abdomen, or heart, as a result of asbestos fibers. Although talc itself is not dangerous, it is often mined near asbestos, which causes the dangerous form of cancer.
During the trial, lawyers representing Johnson & Johnson argued that Lanzo’s mesothelioma could have been caused by other sources, including a childhood home that had asbestos-wrapped pipes. The company maintained that its products are not carcinogenic and have never contained traces of asbestos fibers.
However, at the conclusion of the two-month trial, a jury found Johnson & Johnson responsible for 70% of the damages, and the talc supplier responsible for the remaining 30% of damages. The verdict on compensatory damages was delivered quickly- on the jury’s first full day of deliberations. Lanzo was awarded $30 million, while his wife was awarded an additional $7 million. Just a week later, the jury ordered the companies to pay an additional $80 million to Lanzo.
In a statement reported by Reuters, Lanzo’s attorney stated after the verdict that “we are gratified that justice was achieved and that our clients will be fairly compensated.” Johnson & Johnson, though, continued to deny Lanzo’s allegations and stated that the baby powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer. USA Today reported that, in a corporate statement issued after the verdict on compensatory damages, Johnson & Johnson was “disappointed” in the verdict, yet was reserving further comments until the case is complete. The company also indicated that it plans to appeal the verdict.
The New Jersey verdict is the first trial loss for Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit over claims that talc products contain asbestos. The company is currently battling more than 6,000 ovarian cancer lawsuits in numerous states across the nation. Many of the lawsuits are based on claims that the company failed to warn women about the risk of developing ovarian cancer by using its products for feminine hygiene. Lanzo’s case may open a second front in the litigation over whether the company’s talc products pose a health threat to consumers.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration monitors potential safety issues with cosmetic products such as talcum powder, there are currently no regulations that prohibit talc from containing asbestos. Hence, much of the litigation, both now and in the future, will be based on the companies’ failure to properly warn its consumers.