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Jury awards $550 million to plaintiffs against Johnson & Johnson

Plaintiff Gail Ingham, of O'Fallon, Mo., embraces Monica Cooper, one of her attorneys, outside the civil courthouse in downtown St. Louis on July 12, 2018, after giving a statement to media following a verdict against health care giant Johnson & Johnson.

Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things.” This, of course, was said before the era of social media where facts apparently can be whatever people want them to be.

There are many people who know for a fact that human beings eat eight spiders per year in their sleep. Other people know for a fact that talking on the phone while pumping gas will cause the gas pump to explode. Thousands upon thousands of couples have bird seed thrown at them on their wedding day because they know for a fact that when birds eat rice, their stomachs explode.

None of these so-called facts are in the least bit true. Thanks to social media, these urban legends not only survive — they thrive.

It is little wonder then that outrageously large jury awards are on the rise thanks to a bizarre reliance on unfounded theories and dubious “scientific” facts. Last summer in St. Louis, a jury awarded a $550 million settlement for actual damages and $4.14 billion for punitive damages to 22 women for exposure to talc, which they claimed gave them cancer.

The dispute concerns the presence of trace elements of asbestos in talc products, which theoretically could be present in talc because geologically talc and asbestos often form alongside each other.

Johnson & Johnson insists its products are safe and because there is no conclusive evidence linking talc to cancer, many of these outrageous judgments are being overturned at the appellate level.

And just recently, a California jury awarded a couple a whopping $2 billion for their claim that using Roundup gave them cancer.

Study after study on the toxicity of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, has shown no correlation to cancer. In May 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization’s core assessment group on pesticide residues reviewed the available studies on glyphosate and concluded that “Glyphosate is unlikely is to pose a carcinogenetic risk to humans via exposure to the diet.”

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency review of glyphosate’s human health risks in 2016 determined it is not likely to be a carcinogen to humans. And the EPA just recently reaffirmed its position.

And yet here we are with thousands of lawsuits being filed against makers of Roundup and baby powder in carefully selected court jurisdictions such as California, which the American Tort Reform Foundation ranked as the worst “judicial hellhole” in the country. The foundation ranks St. Louis as fourth worst.

While most of these multibillion-dollar judgments will likely be reversed, it sets a terrible precedent. Justice should not be based on what could be true but what is actually true. Would anyone want to be fired from a job for what they could have done?

No one would want to live with this ridiculously low standard in their personal lives. So why is it acceptable to apply this standard to a corporation just because it is a commercial enterprise?

Our courts are supposed to be a place for people to go to get justice. They are not intended to be a personal ATM for trial lawyers, but that is what they have become in certain jurisdictions across the country.

It is time for honest citizens to be concerned about the abuse of our courts and to demand reform. Justice should be blind, and justice should be certain — not based on fake science.

Travis Akin is former executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.