2018 jury award reduced due to jurisdictional issues
ST. LOUIS — A Missouri appellate court has unanimously upheld a St. Louis jury’s determination that Johnson & Johnson engaged in “reprehensible conduct” by manufacturing and selling asbestos-containing talcum powder products over the course of many decades.
The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld $2.11 billion of a $4.69 billion unanimous jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary JJCI in July 2018 following a six-week trial. The 22 claimants had used the talc-based powders daily for many years, unaware that J&J failed to warn consumers that the talc contains asbestos. Half of the 22 women have died from ovarian cancer, six before trial and another five since the trial ended.
The trial jury awarded each woman or family $25 million in compensatory damages, as well as their respective share of $4.14 billion in punitive damages. The compensatory damages awards were upheld in full by the ruling.
In its 83-page opinion, the three-judge panel rejected numerous arguments by J&J attorneys seeking reversal of the jury’s verdict. The court stated, “Plaintiffs proved with convincing clarity that Defendants engaged in outrageous conduct because of an evil motive or reckless indifference.”
The appellate court ruled in J&J’s favor on two legal points. First, the court concluded that two of the women who had never used J&J’s talc-based products manufactured in Missouri, Marcia Owens and Annette Koman, were required to bring their lawsuits in a different state, and that Johnson & Johnson, as the parent company, could be sued in Missouri only by Missouri residents. Second, the court reduced the punitive damages to $1.61 billion based on the panel’s interpretation of precedent handed down by the United States Supreme Court.
The court stated: “We find there was significant reprehensibility in Defendants’ conduct,” including “evidence that Defendants discussed the presence of asbestos in their talc in internal memoranda for several decades; avoided adopting more accurate measures for detecting asbestos and influenced the industry to do the same; attempted to discredit those scientists publishing studies unfavorable to their Products; and did not eliminate talc from the Products and use cornstarch instead because it would be more costly to do so.”
“Johnson & Johnson has at long last been held accountable for its misconduct,” said lead trial counsel Mark Lanier. “To their shame, decade after decade, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary knowingly manufactured and sold dangerous, life-threatening products. Since the verdict, J&J has finally quit selling this asbestos-laced talc product in the U.S. and Canada. We are gratified that the court found the evidence presented at trial fully supported each one of the jury’s findings, demonstrating the strength and credibility of the overwhelming scientific evidence proving the presence of asbestos and its life-threatening dangers. The opinion shows deep respect for the voice of the jury and admirable concern for the application of Missouri law.”
Lanier also stated: “While we’re disappointed that the families of Marcia Owens and Annette Koman will have to try their cases again, we are confident that another jury will reach the same conclusion about Johnson & Johnson’s blatant misconduct.”
“The appellate court’s thoughtful opinion reflects its meticulous review of the vast evidentiary record. While we hoped to prevail on the two legal issues that the court reversed, we appreciate the court’s hard work and its careful approach to the entire case,” said Ken Starr, a member of the firm’s appellate group and former federal appellate judge and U.S. Solicitor General.
“The court’s opinion reinforces that jury awards that are solidly based on the evidence should not be set aside, especially when the jury determines justice calls for a large amount of punitive damages due to outrageous behavior putting lives at risk,” said Eric Holland, the St. Louis attorney who served as co-counsel in the case.
At the April 24 appellate arguments, the plaintiffs were represented by Kevin Parker of the Lanier Law Firm, assisted on the brief by Mark Lanier, Ken Starr, Natalie Armour, Benjamin Major, and Megan Waida. Co-counsel on the brief included Eric Holland and Patrick Dowd of Holland Law Firm LLC, and John Torbitzky of Behr McCarter & Potter PC.
The Lanier Law Firm continues to represent ovarian cancer victims, as well as mesothelioma victims, in claims against Johnson & Johnson.