At the end of October, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri, awarded $67.5 million to a plaintiff who stated her ovarian cancer was the result of using Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder – a product containing talc. This is the third loss in a row for the pharmaceutical and health care products company. All three trials were held in a state court in St. Louis. So far, J&J’s total liability amounts to approximately $195 million. Although such awards are often reduced and sometimes even overturned on appeal, the prospects aren’t looking good for the defendants.
The three initial cases are only the first of 2,500, all of which allege that the talc in J&J’s Baby Powder was carinogenic. All but 200 of these cases are being heard at Missouri’s 22nd Circuit Court. Jere Beasley, an attorney from a firm representing hundreds of talc plaintiffs, believes these three initial cases are a clear indication that J&J should look for a settlement rather than letting the remaining cases go to trial. Speaking to the St. Louis Dispatch, he said, “If I were representing them, I would say, folks, we need to sit down and regroup and start trying to settle these cases.”
Instead, corporate lawyers for the New Jersey-based company are moving for a change of venue. In a court filing issued last summer, defense attorneys said that most of the plaintiffs do not reside in Missouri, and their corporate clients have no ties to the state – therefore, the St. Louis court was not the proper venue. They further claimed that lawyers for the plaintiffs tainted the jury pool when they spent some $10 million on television ads, the majority of which were aired in the St. Louis area. The judge rejected those arguments. However, J&J defense lawyers are taking their case to the Missouri Court of Appeals. Should that court rule that the Circuit Court in St. Louis lacks jurisdiction, those cases would have to be filed again somewhere else.
St. Louis has been identified by the American Tort Reform Association as a “judicial hellhole” – which is a corporatist buzzword meaning “plaintiff friendly.” In other words, when victims of corporate malfeasance bring suit, courts in such locations have tended to rule in favor of the plaintiff – so really, they are “hellholes” for corporate wrongdoers. This is the real issue for J&J, which has been subject to numerous lawsuits over defective and harmful products in recent years. Like all large corporations that put profits over people, J&J doesn’t want to own up to its mistakes, whether they were deliberate (as is often the case), or a careless oversight.
Some legal scholars believe J&J should continue to fight the cases against it, while others see these early rulings against them as a sign that the company should seek a settlement. It would be better for all concerned if corporations like Johnson & Johnson would cease their willingness to put human health and lives at risk rather than seek to maximize profits and raise stock prices at any and all costs. Unfortunately, this will not happen anytime soon.