J&J settles 1,000 talc lawsuits for $100m+; report

Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 lawsuits that allege the company’s Baby Powder talc products caused cancer, according to Bloomberg.

Citing people close to the matter, the news agency said the settlement marks the first time that J&J has opted to settle litigation in bulk, rather than individually.

All told, there are estimated to be more than 19,000 lawsuits claiming injury caused by J&J’s talc products, so the settlement – if confirmed – represents a fraction of the potential liability facing the company.

The Bloomberg report suggests that the hiatus on courtroom proceedings caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the last few months allowed settlement talks to gather pace.

Many of the lawsuits claim that users of Baby Powder developed ovarian cancer or mesothelioma as a result of exposure to minute levels of asbestos in talc, and plaintiffs insist the company knew of the product’s cancer risks by the early 1970s and failed to warn consumers.

J&J refutes that assertion, and insists there is no asbestos in its talc, although it has been at odds on the latter issue with the FDA.

Earlier this year the company said it was planning to phase out its talc-based Baby Powder range in North America, leaving some corn starch-based products on sale, but insisted that decision was taken as a result of declining demand for Baby Powder products.

The drop in sales came from changing consumer habits, misinformation about talc’s safety, and “a constant barrage of litigation advertising”, it said at the time. Liability law specialists said the phase-out was a key step in resolving the talc litigation as it sets a cut-off point for future lawsuits.

J&J hasn’t commented on the Bloomberg article other than to say that “in certain circumstances, we do choose to settle lawsuits, which is done without an admission of liability and in no way changes our position regarding the safety of our products.”

The company has been fighting litigation over talc for years, with wins and losses, but the standout result was a $4.7 billion damages award to plaintiffs in a Missouri lawsuit a couple of years ago, that was reduced to $2.1 billion on appeal and is still in play.

Before COVID-19 lockdowns, a jury in a New Jersey trial awarded $750 million in punitive damages against J&J, although that was immediately slashed to $187 million by the judge as that was the maximum penalty allowed under state law.

In its latest quarterly report J&J said it had spent $600 million on litigation in the first half of 2020, primarily associated with talc lawsuits. A fresh trial involving a factory worker who claims his mesothelioma was caused by J&J’s talc products is due to start in California later this month.

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