Episode 14: ‘v. Johnson & Johnson’
Producer/Director Alyse Shorland
You’d recognize that distinctive fragrance anywhere. It’s the smell of innocence. Johnson & Johnson has touted its signature baby powder as gentle enough for a baby’s bottom for more than a century. And though its talcum powder represents only a fraction of the pharmaceutical and cosmetic giant’s modern business, it’s been a cornerstone of the company’s reputation.
That reputation — and Johnson & Johnson’s stock price — has been threatened by thousands of lawsuits claiming that the talc the company uses is contaminated with cancer-causing asbestos. Johnson & Johnson denies the presence of carcinogens in its talc, saying the plaintiffs’ tests are flawed and their results inaccurate.
“The Weekly” talks to a former teacher who claims in a lawsuit that her cancer may have been caused by asbestos in the talcum powder she used daily for years. Our reporters examine her case and others, and they comb through decades of company documents revealed during litigation.
[Join the conversation about @theweekly on Twitter and Instagram. #TheWeeklyNYT]
[Watch the full episode of “The Weekly” on FX and Hulu.]
Patricia Schmitz died on July 14. She was 61. Her death from mesothelioma came a month after a jury awarded her $12 million in damages — $4.8 million to be paid by Johnson & Johnson, an equal amount owed by Colgate-Palmolive Co., which was also named in Pat’s lawsuit, and a smaller judgment against a third company not named as a defendant. Johnson & Johnson said it would appeal.
Mark Lanier is getting ready to lead the trial team in a landmark federal opioids trial, scheduled to start later this month in Cleveland. It’s the first test case among those brought by 2,300 cities, counties and Native American tribes nationwide that are suing drug makers, distributors and retailers.
Joe Satterley is appealing a case in Kentucky, where a jury ruled in August that Johnson & Johnson and Colgate were not liable for the death of another of his clients, Donna Ann Hayes, who died of mesothelioma in 2016 at age 72.
Alex Gorsky, the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, recently signed a Business Roundtable statement saying that corporations should play an “essential role” in improving society. The company is currently facing tens of thousands of lawsuits involving its products, including opioids, pelvic mesh, antipsychotic medication, blood thinners and baby powder. Last month, a jury in New Jersey ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $37.3 million to four plaintiffs who claimed that asbestos in the company’s baby powder caused their mesothelioma.
Johnson & Johnson insists its baby powder is safe. But company documents show executives worried for decades about the possible presence of cancer-causing asbestos in talc used to make one of Johnson & Johnson’s signature products.
The company is pressing its appeal of a case in Missouri, where a jury awarded nearly $4.7 billion to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on the company’s talc products. Johnson & Johnson is appealing nearly all of the cases it lost, including a $37 million judgment last month in New Jersey and a $40 million verdict in California. The company successfully defended several cases and others ended in mistrials.
The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Johnson & Johnson over possible asbestos contamination of its products, and the company said it is cooperating with government subpoenas. News reports and lawsuits have weighed on the company’s stock price.
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Director of Photography Jenni Morello
Video Editor Marlon Singleton
Associate Producers Abdulai Bah and Wesley Harris