(Bloomberg) -- Johnson & Johnson may be sending a peace signal after two years of warring over allegations that its iconic baby powder causes cancer.
In what appears to be a first-of-its-kind settlement while facing thousands of lawsuits, the world’s largest health-care products maker and its talc supplier agreed to pay more than $1.5 million to a woman who claimed J&J’s baby powder gave her asbestos cancer, according to people familiar with the accord.
“They are tired of dealing with headline-grabbing verdicts,” said Elizabeth Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia who teaches about mass-tort law.
The settlement resolves a Manhattan woman’s lawsuit blaming J&J and supplier Imerys America Inc. for her mesothelioma, said two people with knowledge of the matter. They spoke on the basis of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly about the deal.
J&J’s shares have been under pressure over concerns about its talc exposure since last week, following media reports saying J&J has been worried since the 1970s about asbestos, a carcinogen, showing up in its talc-based products. The company’s stock fell about 10 percent, shaving off more than $45 billion in value.
J&J’s shares fell 1.3 percent after news of the settlement. They closed Tuesday up 1 percent to $130.42 in New York trading.
Ernie Knewitz, a J&J spokesman, declined to comment on the accord or whether it’s the company’s first talc settlement. Ryan Toohey, an Imerys spokesman, confirmed Imerys had resolved its part of the case, but refused to comment on the monetary details.
J&J has steadfastly denied that its baby power contains asbestos.
"We unequivocally believe that our talc, our baby powder, does not contain asbestos," Alex Gorsky, J&J’s chief executive officer, told CNBC’s Jim Cramer Monday. “And that’s demonstrated in thousands of studies, studies not only conducted by J&J, but studies conducted by independent authorities, well-respected authorities, where we work closely with regulators who are overlooking the methodology."
In the New York case, which was set to go on trial early next month in state court, J&J’s lawyers were set to argue that 78-year-old Ann Zoas contracted mesothelioma from smoking, not baby powder.
Many other women have blamed J&J and Imerys for giving them ovarian cancer. Juries in states including Missouri, California and New Jersey have handed down more than $5 billion in total awards to plaintiffs, but some of those verdicts have been thrown out on appeal. J&J has won verdicts or hung juries in other cases.
J&J faces more trials in 2019, including several in St. Louis -- the site of a $4.67 billion verdict earlier this year. Mark Lanier, the veteran plaintiffs’ lawyer who won that award, is slated to try more cases in St. Louis in 2019. Lanier’s firm represented Zoas in the Manhattan case, which was scheduled for trial Jan. 3. The Houston-based lawyer didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Imerys has settled some cases before trial to limit its exposure, but J&J has refused to cut any deals until now. J&J faces more than 11,700 pending suits over its line of talc products.
The spotlight on the talc litigation has prompted regulators in India to begin testing J&J’s baby powder sold in the country for asbestos, according to news reports. Earlier this month, Canadian regulators warned women using talc products on their genitals that they may be increasing their chances of developing ovarian cancer.
Some analysts, like Lawrence Biegelsen at Wells Fargo, have said J&J may be able to settle the talc litigation for an average of $280,000 per case, which would mean a total exposure of about $6.5 billion. “With over $19B of cash and marketable securities at the end of 3Q18, we
continue to see the talc litigation as manageable for the company,” he said last week.
The case is Zoas v BASF Catalysts LLC, 190162/2017, New York State Supreme
Court, New York County (Manhattan).
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
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