JEFFERSON CITY — A state appeals court on Tuesday slashed in half a $4.69 billion St. Louis jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson but slammed the company for knowingly selling a product that caused cancer.
In an 83-page decision, the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals rejected the company’s request to toss out the 2018 verdict, which had awarded 22 plaintiffs a share of the money over claims its talcum powder caused ovarian cancer in women who used the product for years.
In reducing the verdict to $2.1 billion, it argued some of the plaintiffs should not have been included in the verdict because they were from out of state.
Five of the 22 plaintiffs are Missouri residents or were before their deaths.
In finding for the plaintiffs, the St. Louis Circuit Court jury arrived at the award by multiplying the roughly $70 million Johnson & Johnson earned selling baby powder in a recent year by the 43 years it’s been since the company claimed the baby powder did not contain asbestos.
It reduced the amount to reflect a reduced number of plaintiffs eligible for a share.
The appeals court agreed with the jury’s baseline decision, saying the monetary damages were needed to show other companies that endangering the public with a faulty product could have major consequences.
“Because defendants are large, multi-billion dollar corporations, we believe a large amount of punitive damages is necessary to have a deterrent effect in this case,” the court wrote.
“We find there was significant reprehensibility in defendants’ conduct. The harm suffered by plaintiffs was physical, not just economic. Plaintiffs each developed and suffered from ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs underwent chemotherapy, hysterectomies, and countless other surgeries,” the court added.
The trial differed from five previous talcum powder cases in St. Louis by focusing on the women’s claims their ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos allegedly found in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.
“A reasonable inference from all this evidence is that, motivated by profits, Defendants disregarded the safety of consumers despite their knowledge the talc in their Products caused ovarian cancer,” the court wrote.
Attorney Mark Lanier, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the decision holds Johnson & Johnson accountable for its “misconduct.”
“The opinion shows deep respect for the voice of the jury and admirable concern for the application of Missouri law,” Lanier said.
In prior trials, the company’s lawyers repeatedly rejected claims of asbestos — a mineral that has been linked to mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer — in its baby powder and maintained that its products are safe.
Throughout previous trials and appeals in St. Louis, the company has issued statements denying any link between talc and ovarian cancer.
In May, however, Johnson & Johnson announced it would stop selling baby powder in the U.S. and Canada. It faces more than 19,000 lawsuits claiming that its talc-based products caused cancer because of contamination from asbestos.
A company spokeswoman said the ruling will be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.
“This was a fundamentally flawed trial, grounded in a faulty presentation of the facts,” spokeswoman Kim Montagnino said. “We deeply sympathize with anyone suffering from cancer, which is why the facts are so important. We remain confident that our talc is safe, asbestos free, and does not cause cancer.”
Johnson & Johnson has faced intense scrutiny of its baby powder’s safety following a 2018 Reuters investigative report that found it knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its talc.
Internal company records, trial testimony and other evidence show that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, Johnson & Johnson’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.
The company has been the target of a federal criminal probe on how forthright it has been about the safety of its talc products, as well as an investigation by 41 U.S. states of its baby powder sales.
The company has also faced an investigation by a congressional subcommittee on the health risks of asbestos in consumer products containing talc.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed limits on where injury lawsuits can be filed. In June, a Missouri appeals court threw out a $55 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson, citing the Supreme Court ruling.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Updated at 3:21 p.m.