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Local Jury Orders J&J to Pay Out $117 Million in Asbestos Case

Mesothelioma Victim and His Wife Blamed J&J Baby Powder For His Illness
Johnson's Baby Powder
The use of Johnson's baby powder allegedly caused a man to contract cancer. Dave Schatz

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier were ordered to pay a man and his wife a combined $117 million following a major case held in Middlesex County Courthouse.

On April 11, the jury awarded punitive damages of $80 million after it failed to agree with the pharmaceutical giant’s counsel that the company did not act with “malicious conduct” when it deliberately continued to sell talcum powder containing trace amounts of asbestos.

The punitives award comes five days after the same jury awarded $30 million in compensatory damages to Stephen Lanzo, a 46-year-old man who was diagnosed with Mesothelioma in 2016, and another $7 million to his wife, Kendra.

As we reported, the lengthy and complex trial was being held before Judge Ana Viscomi right here in downtown New Brunswick. It was only expected to take a month, but took three. 

New Jersey’s punitive damage cap did not apply to the jury’s award because it didn’t exceed five times the compensatory damages awarded to the Lanzos.

Comprised of five females and one male, the panel awarded $55 million in punishment damages against J&J and $25 million against the talc vendor – a total of $80 million. The compensatory damages were similarly divided betweent the two culpable parties.

The companies' actions allegedly contributed to Stephen Lanzo’s development of mesothelioma, a type of cancer. It was the first case in which a jury linked talcum-based products to the disease.

The verdict linking J&J’s baby powder to cancer and asbestos, “tarnishes the brand a bit,” Jean Eggen, a Widener University law professor, told Bloomberg News, adding that it was likely to immediately precipitate additional cases. 

J&J was transparent with the Food and Drug Administration, regarding the contents of its products, their attorney told the jury in an April 17 afternoon session as it considered the punitive damages portion of the case.

Mike Brock of Kirkland & Ellis LLP noted that “no sinister activity was going on,” saying the company “listened intently” to findings from testing of its talc in the 1970's, and participated in an important FDA symposium in 1971.

J&J “is not a company that is putting its hand over its eyes and saying, ‘I don’t see anything.’ They’re looking, and when you’re looking, you’re exercising due care,” Brock told the panel, describing an “expression of care,” on J&J’s part.

“Johnson’s Baby Powder has been used for more than 120 years and it does not contain asbestos or cause mesothelioma,” said J&J, in a statement on April 11.

“Throughout this trial, we were prevented from presenting evidence we believe would have been important to the jury in their deliberations, which forced us to file multiple mistrial motions,” the statement read. "We will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder and immediately begin our appeal, and we believe that once the full evidence is reviewed, this decision will be reversed."

"It's a historic verdict," said Moshe Maimon, of Levy Konigsberg LLP, one of the Lanzos' attorneys. “This has been a grueling trial. The defendants in this case threw up every roadblock that they could to keep the pertinent evidence from going to the jury."

Neither of plaintiffs were present in the Courthouse as the jury granted them millions.

Imerys Talc America, J&J's supplier, will also appeal the decision. In a statement the company said it backs the safety of its products and remains confident that talc did not cause Mr. Lanzo’s cancer. The company said his exposure came from asbestos in the home he lived in with his family, or at school.