Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $4.7 billion in damages to cancer patients

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Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay almost $4.7bn (£3.58bn) in damages to 22 women who claim the company's talcum powder contributed to them developing ovarian cancer.

The jury announced the $4.14 billion award in punitive damages shortly after awarding $550 million in compensatory damages after a six-week trial in St. Louis Circuit Court. The trial was the largest test for J&J's talc defense to date and combined the claims of 22 women, six of whom have died. At issue were claims that the pharmaceutical giant sold powder products that were contaminated with asbestos - once a pollutant in talc that has been linked to lung cancer - though there is much debate about whether talcum powder can lead to ovarian cancer.

J&J said it was 'deeply disappointed in the verdict'.

During closing arguments, Johnson & Johnson lawyer Peter Bicks said the company for years has exceeded industry standards in testing talcum powder for asbestos and cited several scientific studies and conclusions by USA government agencies that he said found the company's products didn't contain asbestos and were safe.

The women's lead lawyer, Mark Lanier, said: "For over 40 years, Johnson & Johnson has covered up the evidence of asbestos in their products".

"Some (of the plaintiffs) are truly on their death bed and fighting for every day of their lives, and several of them came back for the jury verdict and were hugging the necks of those jurors", said Lanier.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict yesterday to award compensatory damages for 22 plaintiffs that averaged US$25 million apiece.

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J&J in a statement called the trial "fundamentally unfair" and said it would appeal the decision.

Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015.

"The evidence in the case was simply overwhelmed by the prejudice of this type of proceeding", the company said in a statement.

A St. Louis jury has awarded $550 million to almost two dozen women who claimed asbestos in Johnson & Johnson's talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer. Lanier, however, told jurors that the company "rigged the tests" to avoid conceding that its baby powder contained asbestos. It did not find asbestos in any of them. J&J denies those allegations, saying rigorous testing and purification processes ensure its talc is clean. Two of those plaintiffs' verdicts, one for $72 million and the other for $55 million, have been erased on appeal on jurisdictional grounds. Concerns about a link between talc and ovarian cancer started surfacing around 1971, when scientists wrote about finding talc particles embedded in ovarian and cervical tumor tissue.

The women who sued, whose jobs range from school bus driver to executive director of a job-retraining program, come from states including Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and NY.

Punitive damages are additional punishments levied against a defendant to prevent similar actions in the future.

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