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J&J and talc supplier liable for $80 million in punitive damages

In a major victory on April 5, a New Jersey state-court jury awarded a man with mesothelioma and his wife $37 million in damages. The plaintiffs alleged that his deadly asbestos-related cancer developed because he used Johnson & Johnson talcum powder for decades.

The same jury later added $80 million in punitive damages to the total in the second phase of the trial. Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are a tool for a jury to punish a defendant in a civil case for bad behavior. In addition, punitive damage awards are a way to set the defendant out as an example to deter other similar parties from engaging in similar behavior.

Why talc?

Asbestos is a mineral used most commonly in industrial settings and in building and construction materials for its ability to block the transmission of heat and as a reinforcer (i.e., for its strength). It is also used or found in some consumer products. Unfortunately, when invisible asbestos fibers become airborne such as when a product containing it is broken or crushed, anyone in the area could breathe in these fibers, which can cause devastating and fatal diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. These asbestos-related injuries do not manifest in the body for decades.

Traditionally, asbestos victims have been people exposed at work like miners, building construction and demolition workers, mechanics, shipbuilders and demolishers, remodelers, plumbers, boiler workers, insulators, electricians, firefighters and others.

A newer kind of victim has emerged: people exposed to asbestos through talc, another soft mineral, in consumer products like baby powder, talcum powder and makeup. For example, the media has largely covered the recent story of asbestos found in children's makeup sold by Claire's.

Contamination of talc can happen because veins of talc and of asbestos can occur side by side in the ground and may mix in the mining process.

Readers may also have heard about the thousands of talc-based lawsuits filed across the country alleging that talc has caused ovarian cancer in women.

The Lanzo case

Stephen Lanzo is a banker who is only 47 years old. Mesothelioma is relatively rare in someone so young. He reportedly used Johnson & Johnson's baby powder and Shower to Shower powder for three decades. When used as intended, talcum powder creates a cloud of dust when shaken out of its container, breathed in by the user and anyone else around. Logically, if this cloud contained asbestos fibers, they would be inhaled.

Lanzo and his wife sued Johnson and Johnson and its talc supplier Imerys alleging that the asbestos-contaminated talc products caused his mesothelioma. According to Courtroom View Network, Lanzo is the first male involved in a trial against Johnson and Johnson involving talc products.

Ironically, the courthouse in New Brunswick where the trial was held is close to the Johnson & Johnson headquarters.

In the first phase of the trial, the $37 million verdict for compensatory damages was allocated 30 percent to the supplier (Imerys) and 70 percent to Johnson & Johnson. Lanzo was awarded $30 million; his wife $7 million.

The punitive damages phase concluded April 11 with the jury delivering the $80 million verdict after only deliberating about three hours, reports the New Jersey Law Journal. Punitive damages were apportioned $25 million to Imerys and $55 million to Johnson & Johnson.

Bloomberg reports that a 1974 Johnson & Johnson memorandum was a crucially important piece of evidence. Written by a company scientist, the memo warned that talc with asbestos was dangerous to health. Plaintiffs argued that Johnson & Johnson knew of this danger in their products and kept it secret, failing to warn consumers for all of these many years.

Both defendants deny liability and say they will appeal.

Regardless of the outcome of this one case, anyone suffering from mesothelioma, ovarian cancer or other diseases linked to talc products should seek both medical care and legal advice.

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