Last modified: December 1, 2021
Johnson & Johnson’s Connection to Asbestos
Johnson & Johnson announced in October 2021 its talc subsidiary filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company had previously set aside nearly $4 billion to cover lawsuits claiming its iconic Johnson’s Baby Powder causes cancer, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. To date, billions of dollars have been awarded to plaintiffs.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation in July 2019 to determine if Johnson & Johnson purposefully misled the public about asbestos fibers in its talcum powder. The justice department criminal investigation may take years to resolve.
In 2018, a Reuters investigative report exposed company knowledge of asbestos contamination in its talc products tracing back decades. Tests from different labs found asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talc from 1971 to the early 2000s, and the company failed to report the findings to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
FDA, Talcum Powder and Asbestos
Retailers throughout the U.S. pulled J&J’s talc-based baby powder from shelves in October 2019 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found asbestos in one of the containers. The container was part of a 33,000-bottle batch that the company voluntarily recalled on Oct. 18, 2019. The discovery occurred during a review of 43 cosmetic samples in which the FDA found nine of them contaminated with asbestos.
Asbestos is regulated at federal, state and local levels of government. Talc is not regulated by any government agency. The cosmetics industry has been left to regulate its own use of talc, which has resulted in asbestos contaminating consumer products. The FDA is conducting more tests of cosmetics products and is expected to release results in 2022 but has not released any new updates.
For years, it’s been well known that many sources of talc are naturally contaminated with asbestos, which causes mesothelioma. The two minerals often occur in the same geological formations. Despite this, J&J did not focus on the issues of asbestos contamination in baby powder, which is one of its flagship consumer products.
Johnson & Johnson’s Talcum Powder and Asbestos
According to Reuters, Johnson & Johnson knew its talc contained asbestos from the early 1970s through the early 2000s. By 2018, J&J was paying out multimillion-dollar verdicts over asbestos exposure from contaminated talcum powder.
Johnson & Johnson announced in May 2020 it would end sales of its talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada but would continue to sell it internationally. Retailers kept selling stock of the product until it ran out. The company will continue to make a cornstarch-based version of its Johnson’s Baby Powder available in the U.S. and Canada.
Shower to Shower, a line of talcum powder products made by J&J, was sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals (now Bausch Health) in 2012, prior to the advent of the first lawsuits in 2016. The company launched Johnson’s Baby Powder in 1894.
J&J Denied Talcum Powder-Cancer Connection
Johnson & Johnson has always publicly denied its talcum powder products cause cancer, much like many other companies accused of using asbestos in their products. However, documents unsealed in 2017 revealed J&J company executives were aware of asbestos liabilities as early as the 1970s.
Company reports highlighted the need to suppress concerns over asbestos contamination at talc mines in Vermont and Italy. And despite some J&J staff considering a switch of baby powder’s main ingredient from talc to cornstarch to avoid liability, the company never stopped selling talcum powder.
Tests conducted in the latter half of the 20th century revealed asbestos in J&J’s talc, which the company covered up, failing to report the contamination. Some of the talc was sourced from Windsor Materials talc mine in Vermont, where one official recommended adding citric acid to help hide the presence of chrysotile asbestos fibers. Now juries are holding Johnson & Johnson accountable for asbestos-related cancer its products caused.
Congress Investigates J&J Asbestos-Contaminated Talc
In July 2021, U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky requesting information regarding the company’s reported plans to pursue bankruptcy protection for its talc liabilities. The request followed an investigation conducted from 2019 to 2020 by the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which Krishnamoorthi chairs.
In February 2019, Sen. Patty Murray sent a letter to Gorsky asking for documentation about past testing for asbestos contamination in the company’s talc products.
The request came after an investigative report from Reuters News Agency revealed J&J hid evidence of asbestos in its products for decades and misled the FDA about it. All of this added up to potential large liability for the company.
J&J Faces Baby Powder Lawsuits
Under the weight of tens of thousands of lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson announced in October 2021 that its talc subsidiary, LTL Management, would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The move effectively halts all outstanding and unresolved talc lawsuits against the company, which has been named in more than 25,000 talc lawsuits over its Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products.
Bankruptcy Judge Craig Whitley moved the case from North Carolina to New Jersey, where Johnson & Johnson is headquartered, in November 2021. The move takes the case from a jurisdiction considered favorable to J&J’s bankruptcy plan to one that is unfavorable based on past proceedings.
A committee of talc claimants said in court papers filed in November it will soon file a motion to end LTL Management’s bankruptcy plan and the temporary halt to related talc lawsuits. A hearing to rule on the motion is scheduled for February 2022.
In February 2021, Johnson & Johnson set aside $3.9 billion for talc-related litigation, according to a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. The company has reportedly spent approximately $1 billion on legal defense for nearly 40,000 talc claims. Settlements and verdicts have cost the company an additional $3.5 billion.
Subsidiary Seeks Bankruptcy Protection for Talc Lawsuits
Allocating its talc liabilities to a subsidiary and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a move that will resolve thousands of lawsuits at a lower cost to J&J. All current and future talc claims will be put on hold while the company negotiates with the bankruptcy court to establish a reorganization plan.
Johnson & Johnson said it will work with the bankruptcy court to create a trust fund with an initial advance of $2 billion to resolve all outstanding and future talc claims. The measure will save the company billions of dollars over time by settling claims through a trust fund rather than litigating them individually.
Measures to block the bankruptcy move by attorneys representing talc plaintiffs were denied by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in the District of Delaware in August 2021. Reports surfaced in July 2021 that Johnson & Johnson was considering the creation of a subsidiary to absorb its asbestos-contaminated talc liabilities.
Notable Mesothelioma Lawsuits Against J&J
The company has faced multiple lawsuits related to its products.
Asbestos Talc Lawsuits and News Involving Johnson & Johnson
A Black women’s advocacy group filed a lawsuit against J&J, claiming the company targeted Black women with deceptive marketing aimed to sell talc products to a demographic that was at a disadvantage to cope with the potential health consequences.
Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle more than a thousand talc lawsuits. It was the first time the company had settled talc lawsuits in bulk, having previously settled only individual cases.
A New York jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $325 million to Donna Olson, who claimed J&J’s talcum powder caused her to develop mesothelioma. The jury awarded $25 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages.
Sen. Patty Murray sent a letter requesting documentation about past testing of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder for asbestos. The letter was in response to a report released by the Reuters News Agency in 2018 that said J&J had covered up tests showing asbestos contamination since the 1970s.
Reuters published an investigative report claiming that Johnson & Johnson knew its iconic baby powder contained asbestos. Tests from independent labs detected asbestos in the product from 1971 to the early 2000s, but J&J covered it up and never reported it to the FDA.
A California jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $25.7 million to Joanne Anderson, who said she developed mesothelioma from using the company’s talcum powder. The jury awarded $21.7 million in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages.
A New Jersey jury ordered J&J and Imerys Talc America to pay $80 million in punitive damages to Stephen Lanzo III, who claimed he developed mesothelioma from using the company’s Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products from 1972 to 2003.
Lanzo was awarded $37 million in compensatory damages the week prior. Punitive damages brought the total verdict to $117 million. It was J&J’s first loss involving an asbestos talcum powder lawsuit.
Evidence in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson showed the company had known its talcum powder products contained asbestos since the early 1970s. J&J trained its employees to reassure the public that its products were never contaminated. The lawsuit was filed by more than 50 women with ovarian cancer in St. Louis.
A St. Louis jury awarded $72 million to the surviving family of Jacqueline Fox, who claimed she died of ovarian cancer caused by longtime exposure to Johnson & Johnson’s talc products. The jury ruled J&J failed to warn the public and conspired to hide evidence of asbestos contamination.
Research shows long-term use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder can lead to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified asbestos-contaminated talc as carcinogenic to humans.
Johnson & Johnson’s Supreme Court Appeals
On Aug. 30, 2021, J&J filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition requested a writ of certiorari, which is an order for a lower court to provide its record to a higher court for review. In this case, J&J was requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision to allow a lawsuit challenging the company’s talc labeling.
Attorneys for J&J contend in their petition to the court that, “In 2014, the FDA made a reasoned regulatory decision not to require talc products — like Johnson’s Baby Powder — to bear warning labels stating that using talcum powder increases the risk of ovarian cancer. The decision came in the form of a final agency action that denied two citizen petitions.” And that “Wielding a state consumer protection statute, the State AG sued J&J insisting that J&J was legally required to use an ovarian cancer warning label even though the FDA already rejected one.”
In April 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that federal cosmetic labeling laws did not prevent Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s suit. AG Fitch argued that J&J failed to follow state consumer protection laws when it did not disclose the risks of asbestos-contaminated talc.
Former FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and seven other top former FDA officials filed an amicus brief, or supporting legal document, arguing against the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling. In their brief they contend that the “FDA is also the only regulatory body that can monitor the entire life cycle of a product and understand the context of a particular market.” And “When FDA labeling decisions are stripped of preemptive effect, the agency becomes just one of more than 50 regulators nationwide, fighting to be heard over a cacophony of conflicting information.”
J&J’s August 2021 petition is not the first time the company has turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for help in its legal battles over asbestos-contaminated talc. In June 2021, the court rejected a request to overturn a $2.1 billion verdict the Missouri Court of Appeals issued.
The appeals court had upheld a landmark jury verdict that ruled long-term use of J&J’s talc products caused ovarian cancer in 22 women, but cut the award from $4.69 billion to $2.1 billion.
J&J Talcum Supplier Files for Bankruptcy
A judge overseeing bankruptcy proceedings for Imerys Talc America rejected a restructuring plan in October 2021, forcing the company to reevaluate its next steps in bankruptcy reorganization.
In February 2019, Imerys Talc America, a key talc supplier for Johnson & Johnson, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy occurred in the wake of multibillion-dollar lawsuits alleging its talc caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
One of the main causes of mesothelioma — accounting for around 90% of cases — is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is also a proven cause of ovarian cancer. The suspected link to baby powder and ovarian cancer comes from the product being used by women for personal hygiene.
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