Four verdicts totaling more than $300 million against consumer giant Johnson & Johnson in the last 15 months over claims its baby powder causes ovarian cancer have come from St. Louis juries, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The largest yet was May 4 when jurors awarded $110.5 million to a 62-year-old ovarian cancer patient who used the company’s products for decades. Her case was the fifth talcum powder trial held in St. Louis Circuit Court so far and among hundreds on the docket.
The plaintiffs who’ve gone to trial in St. Louis were from outside Missouri: Alabama, California, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia. They came seeking fast trials and friendly juries. All but one prevailed; Johnson & Johnson is appealing the verdicts against the company.
The survival of the recent talcum powder verdicts and thousands more pending cases may rest on legal debates in state and federal courts that could clarify rules for how state courts handle mass tort claims against big businesses. Talcum powder cases against Johnson & Johnson have found a home in St. Louis, in part, because Missouri law allows out-of-state plaintiffs to join forces and sue here.
The claims in all of the cases are similar: Plaintiffs say they believe Johnson & Johnson knew for years that its talcum powder products were linked to ovarian cancer and failed to warn customers. The company has consistently said its products are safe and continues to defend legal claims in court.
Each of the five trials held so far in St. Louis has lasted about a month, with plaintiffs going one by one in what is called a bellwether approach designed to predict how future trials could play out.
In December, the talc verdicts landed St. Louis Circuit Court a spot atop the pro-business American Tort Reform Association’s annual ranking of “judicial hellholes,” a label Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, has repeated as part of a Republican-led push to alter the state’s legal landscape.
Legal experts say the future of talc litigation in St. Louis rides on a looming U.S. Supreme Court ruling dealing with proper jurisdiction. One case will decide if non-California residents can file claims in that state against Bristol-Myers Squibb, the New York-based maker of the blood-thinner Plavix.
Meanwhile, the appeals process in the first talcum powder verdict has already begun at the Missouri Eastern District appeals court in St. Louis.
Thomas Weaver, a lawyer for Johnson & Johnson, told the court on May 10 that the first talc verdict — $72 million last year to relatives of a woman from Alabama who died of ovarian cancer — should never have been tried in the first place. Weaver argued that she wouldn’t be allowed to sue in Missouri under a recent state high court decision that said the state has no jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. That case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
No decision on Johnson & Johnson’s appeal of the first verdict is expected until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bristol-Myers case.
The Supreme Court’s decision won’t come before the next talcum powder trial in June before St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison. It features the first in-state plaintiff — Michael Blaes of Webster Groves — whose wife, Shawn M. Blaes, died of ovarian cancer at age 50. She was a competitive figure skater, coach and co-owner of a skate shop in Webster Groves, Mo.
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