Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky testified to the safety of Johnson & Johnson’s signature baby powder in court recently, stating that steps have been taken by the company to ensure the product is safe for consumers. “I was told by experts in these fields that, in fact, we were using the most appropriate, most up-to-date methodologies to make sure our talc was safe,” testified Mr. Gorsky in a courtroom just blocks from the company’s New Jersey headquarters.

Having overseen Johnson & Johnson since 2012, he verbally defended the well-known baby powder and publicly proclaimed its safety. Lawsuits against the product have mounted in recent years.

UPDATE 02/021/2020:

A New Jersey state jury ordered J&J to pay $750 million in punitive damages to four plaintiffs who claimed the company’s baby powder products was the reason they developed cancer.

A Key Witness

The company’s website contains a video in which the CEO declares that J&J fully cooperated with government regulators and has completed testings showing the talcum powder is safe. Similar assertions were made in December 2018 when Mr. Gorsky appeared on “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” in a CNBC televised interview.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs purport that these very comments make the CEO a key witness, because his statements furthered J&J’s behavior of hiding the dangers of its talcum powders. The attorneys are representing four individuals who filed lawsuits alleging the products contained asbestos and caused mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.

Johnson & Johnson, a giant in the health product industry, worked hard to keep the CEO from testifying in court by arguing that he was in no way involved in any research, developing or testing of the talc products. The company further argued that the majority of the products’ use by plaintiffs was done way before Gorsky took over leadership of the company. However, he was ordered by a judge to testify because his public comments about the company’s products make his testimony relevant, per the judge’s ruling.

Talcum Powder Lawsuits Filed

Nearly 17,000 plaintiffs have filed suits in federal and state courts against Johnson & Johnson claiming the talcum powder caused cancer. The lawsuits further allege that J&J did not properly warn the public of this serious risk. The company defends its position that the product is safe and does not contain any asbestos or cause cancer.

More than 20 cases have gone to state court trials in which some of the company’s employees have testified. The CEO, however, had only given a deposition until the most recent incident where he was ordered to openly testify in court.

J&J CEO’s Testimony

Mr. Gorsky was questioned on the witness stand by attorneys for plaintiffs and Johnson & Johnson for over four hours. He was shown, by an opposing attorney, a number of company documents. The paperwork from the 1970s shows a refusal by employees and consultants to adopt a newer testing technique that would have detected asbestos at smaller concentrations than the current methods in use by J&J then.

The CEO testified on the stand that his reliance has been on company experts who embrace and trust the company’s methodologies in use over the decades. He further explained that he has not read all the historical documents regarding the safety of the company’s talcum powder.

Mr. Gorsky’s court testimony in the case came within the same month that he had just stated in an October 3 deposition, “We unequivocally believe that our talc and our baby powder does not contain asbestos.” This deposition was given for a lawsuit in which a retired college professor in Indiana claims his cancer is the result of his use of J&J’s baby powder for decades. Gorsky pointed to “thousands of tests and studies” that all support his testimony, and said, “I’m not aware of our baby powder or talc containing asbestos.”

September 2019 Settlement

A jury awarded $37.3 million in September 2019 to four individuals who had previously used either Johnson’s Baby Powder or Shower to Shower, another powder the company used to produce. The jury determined that the products had exposed the victims to asbestos contained in the powders, that J&J did not warn consumers of the risk, and that the powders caused mesothelioma. The amount of damages awarded by the jury was to compensate the victims for their suffering.

An additional phase of this case began recently with a different jury to determine if the health product giant should pay further punitive damages to the plaintiffs as punishment for J&J’s negligent conduct. Once the trial is fully completed, the company will appeal the verdict from September.

Johnson & Johnson won some talc trial verdicts late in 2019, but has also lost some costly ones. For example, in a St. Louis 2018 verdict, the company was ordered by a jury to pay 22 women a total of $4.7 billion for causing ovarian cancer through its powders. This verdict is being appealed by J&J.

Talc Testing

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reportedly found asbestos in trace amounts in Johnson’s Baby Powder in October 2019, via a contract laboratory, Johnson & Johnson recalled approximately 33,000 bottles of talcum powder in a precautionary move. Per the company, however, later testing by other labs did not show any asbestos from the same lot and bottle.

The plaintiffs’ attorney asked Mr Gorsky during his testimony at trial if he is able to state under oath that no testing has shown asbestos in Johnson & Johnson powders. “That’s correct,” was the CEO’s response. The trial will likely continue into February. The company released a written statement in which it says it is moving ahead with its defense and is looking forward to presenting evidence.            

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Peter Loftus. “For First Time, J&J CEO Testifies in a Talcum-Powder Court Case”, The Wall Street Journal, Accessed January 28, 2020.