J&J, Imerys unit must pay $117 million in N.J. asbestos cancer case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc America, a unit of Imerys SA, must pay $117 million in damages in a case involving a man who said he developed cancer due to his exposure to asbestos in talc-based products, a New Jersey state court jury said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The jury ordered the companies to pay an additional $80 million in punitive damages to Stephen Lanzo after awarding him and his wife $37 million in compensatory damages during the first stage of the trial last Thursday.

The verdict by jurors in New Brunswick, New Jersey, came in the second trial nationally to focus on claims that J&J’s talc products contained asbestos as the company separately fights thousands of cases claiming they can also cause ovarian cancer.

Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $55 million and the Imerys unit $25 million of the punitive damages award, according to an online broadcast of the trial by Courtroom View Network.

The decision marks the first trial loss for J&J over allegations that its talc-based consumer products, such as Johnson’s Baby Powder, contain asbestos. The company denies the allegations, saying its powders do not contain asbestos or cause cancer.

J&J in a statement said it would continue to defend the safety of its Baby Powder and immediately begin appealing the verdict, adding that it had been prevented from presenting important evidence to the jury.

“After suffering multiple losses through court rulings and at trial, plaintiff’s attorneys have shifted their strategy and are now alleging that talcum powder is contaminated with asbestos,” the company said.

Imerys Talc America in a statement said it planned to appeal the decision, adding that it stood behind the safety of its products. “The evidence is clear that (Lanzo’s) asbestos exposure came from different sources,” the company said.

The lawsuit was brought by New Jersey resident Stephen Lanzo, who said he developed mesothelioma after inhaling dust that was generated through his regular use of J&J talc powder products since his birth in 1972.

Mesothelioma is a deadly form of cancer closely associated with exposure to asbestos. It affects the delicate tissue that lines body cavities, most often around the lungs but also in the abdomen and elsewhere.

Last Thursday, the jury awarded Lanzo $30 million and his wife Kendra $7 million in compensatory damages. It found J&J was responsible for 70 percent of the damages and said the unit of France-based Imerys SA, its talc supplier, was responsible for 30 percent.

“We are gratified that justice was achieved and that our clients will be fairly compensated,” Moshe Maimon, who represented the Lanzos, said in a statement

J&J shares closed down 0.5 percent.

New Brunswick-based J&J faces talc-related lawsuits by 6,610 plaintiffs nationally, largely based on claims it failed to warn women about the risk of developing ovarian cancer by using its products for feminine hygiene.

In five trials in Missouri involving ovarian cancer lawsuits, juries found J&J liable four times and awarded the plaintiffs a total of $307 million. In California, a jury awarded a now-deceased woman $417 million.

But in October, a Missouri appellate court threw out the first verdict there for $72 million and a California judge tossed the $417 million verdict. J&J is seeking to reverse the other verdicts.

Asbestos claims are a more recent challenge for J&J. It won the only other asbestos-related trial in November when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury ruled in its favor.

Reporting by Tina Bellon; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Phil Berlowitz