Supreme Court of Missouri Refuses to Review a $2.1 Billion Award Against Johnson & Johnson Over Ovarian Cancer-Causing Talc Powder

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Moshiuzzaman
Moshiuzzaman holds a 2:1 LL.B degree from BPP University (UK). He is currently pursuing the CFA chartership and working as an independent legal researcher at the American Society of International Law (ASIL)

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The Supreme Court of Missouri has refused to review a $2.1 bn award by a St Louis jury, which found Johnson & Johnson Inc. guilty of manufacturing baby talc-powder that was laced with asbestos and caused ovarian cancer.  

Background

In 2018, legal proceedings were brought against Johnson & Johnson Inc. and its various subsidiaries which manufactured baby power products with talc components. Allegations were made against the company stating that their talc-related products contained asbestos and had caused ovarian cancer. It was estimated that over 19,000 lawsuits were filed in the U.S. and Canada. About half of these lawsuits have been won by the company and half of them had been lost and subsequently appealed. 

Although Johnson & Johnson continues to maintain their products as being safe to use, they have since 2019, recalled more than 30,000 bottles of talc-containing baby powder products from the U.S. and Canada. In an independent investigation carried by the Federal Drug and Administration (FDA) Department, a bottle was discovered to have contained asbestos. Later, Johnson & Johnson, through their own investigation reported that the bottle examined by the FDA did in fact not contain any traces of asbestos. One faction of the class action lawsuit, filed a case in the state of Missouri in the United States, alleging cancer that had been developed by 22 women who were long term users of the baby powders.

The Missouri Court of Appeal 

The Missouri Court of Appeal held that the trial had shown clear and convincing evidence of the contested products containing asbestos which had cancer-causing effects. The court stated that “[m]otivated by profits, the defendants disregarded the safety of consumers, despite the knowledge that [the] talc in their products caused ovarian cancer.” The legal team of the claimants successfully established, through internal company memorandum, some dating as far back as 50 years ago, that there was potential asbestos contamination in the company’s talc. 

The court, after a long jury verdict, awarded $550 million in compensatory damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages. A later appeal reduced the award to $500 million in compensatory damages and $1.62 billion in punitive damages. Additionally, because five of the twenty women had died since the trial began, and seventeen of them were not Missouri residents, as per the state law of Missouri, they were not entitled to the same damages as the others; hence, reducing the total award.

The Supreme Court of Missouri

On the 3rd of November 2020, the Supreme Court of Missouri refused to review the revised award of $2.1 bn. Restating Judge Rex Burlison from the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court held that there was irrefutable evidence that Johnson & Johnson were at least aware of the possibility that asbestos may exist in the talc that they used to manufacture the baby products; yet, in spite of that knowledge, they continued to manufacture the products regardless of the consequences it had on users. On the basis of this argument, the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that justice requires the company to adequately compensate the victims, and that there was no error in the findings as deemed by the Missouri Court of Appeal. 

Impact

Johnson & Johnson’s legal team has already stated that they would bring the matter before the United States Supreme Court. They also stated that they have lost significant amounts of revenue and incurred irreparable reputation damage because of the misinformation surrounding the case. A spokesperson for the company has asked consumers to buy the company’s products stating they are safe. On the contrary, the claimants’ attorneys have asked Johnson & Johnson to accept the verdict and submit to the award by the court. 

Access judgment of the Missouri Court of Appeal here.


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