Johnson & Johnson had a year for the record books in 2016, in a bad way.
It lost six of 2016’s seven largest jury verdicts in the U.S. over product defect claims. And in 2017 the company is facing at least 17 trials in state and federal courts in the U.S. over hip implants, talcum powder, pelvic mesh, an anti-psychotic drug and a blood thinner. And beyond these trials, there are tens of thousands more potential claims over those five products, according to Bloomberg.
Women with ovarian cancer blame baby powder and talc products for their illnesses, alleging Johnson & Johnson has withheld information on a link between talcum powder and cancer. The Risperdal suits are being brought by boys and young men who said they developed female breasts after taking the anti-psychotic drug. The plaintiffs in the hip implant cases claim the company’s Pinnacle products fail, causing pain and requiring replacement surgeries. The company also has thousands of claims over Xarelto, alleging the blood thinner can cause uncontrolled bleeding, and pelvic mesh inserts, claiming the implants erode.
Johnson & Johnson’s defenses vary, but ultimately it denies liability for injuries. In talc, for instance, Johnson & Johnson says there’s no scientific evidence pointing to a link between mineral in talcum powder and ovarian cancer. With Risperdal and other drugs, Johnson & Johnson contends that patients and doctors were sufficiently warned about possible side effects.
The reasons for Johnson & Johnson’s bad year are many-fold.
First, companies rarely get hit with more than two or three product defect verdicts above $20 million in any given year. Johnson & Johnson lost six of more than $50 million. The company was hit with two hip implant verdicts: one for $1 billion (the seventh-largest product-defect award in U.S. history) and another for $500 million. The company lost all three talc cases that went to trial in 2016, for verdicts of $72 million, $70 million and $55 million, each by St. Louis juries. A Philadelphia jury in July awarded the largest-ever Risperdal verdict, $70 million to a Tennessee teenager, that dwarfed the previous $2.5 million record for such claims.
And there seems to be no end in sight. Johnson & Johnson said in its most recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings that it’s facing more than 100,000 claims over these five products, and the numbers are continually rising. In the past year, claims over Xarelto have more than tripled, from 5,000 to 16,900. Those numbers are likely to grow, particularly with plaintiffs’ lawyers nationwide advertising for more clients. The pattern is typical for product-defect litigation — unless judges toss out claims or a defendant starts winning at trial, it’s a feeding frenzy.
J&J’s tactics are tried and true for a company facing mass litigation: the longer and harder it fights, the better the chance of whittling down the claims or discouraging other plaintiffs. While big verdicts grab the headlines in product-defect cases, defendants often get claims thrown out before they reach a jury or win at trial, usually with less fanfare. While J&J lost three talc cases at trial in 2016, it won the first jury verdict this year. And J&J won dismissal last year of some talc claims filed in New Jersey, when the judge agreed that scientific proof was lacking. Also, what a jury decides isn’t written in stone. Judges and appeals courts may reduce awards or reverse verdicts. That $1 billion implant verdict has already been cut to $500 million. What happens in these initial trials, including appeals, will affect the ultimate cost, if any, for settlements.
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