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Johnson & Johnson must pay hefty punitive damages in cancer case

Most of the compensation the victim in a personal injury case receives is tied directly to his or her actual losses. However, that's not how punitive damages work.

Punitive damages are unlike other types of injury compensation because they aren't designed to compensate the plaintiff. While the money does go to the plaintiff, the real goal is to punish the defendant for what the court sees as reckless or intentional acts of harm.

In a recent ruling, Johnson & Johnson -- usually known for its "baby-friendly" products -- has been ordered to pay an additional $4 million to a plaintiff who developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure through the company's talcum powder. The $4 million represents punitive damages on top of the nearly $22 million it owes the victim and her spouse. This is the second time the company has lost a case involving similar complaints.

The company still maintains that it does not use asbestos in its talcum powder products and that they do not cause any type of cancer. However, plaintiffs have alleged that it is impossible to avoid asbestos contamination during the process used for mining talc. The minerals are closely related in composition and form.

It's not clear yet what companies will have to share the liability for the compensatory damages the victim and her spouse were awarded. Several talc suppliers were also named in the suit. The $4 million punitive award, however, was directed solely at Johnson & Johnson -- which signals the jury's disapproval of the industry giant's methods and approach to customer safety.

There are around 9,000 outstanding claims facing the company regarding talc products, including issues involving ovarian cancer and other alleged contamination from asbestos.

Cases involving asbestos exposure are incredibly complex and often involve a great deal of expert testimony. There are often multiple defendants involved, from supplier and manufacturers to end-of-the-line retail stores. In this case, even some drug stores have been swept up in the talc-related claims. It's likely to be quite a while before all the appeals are done and the final verdicts are truly in.

Source: Reuters, "J&J must pay $4 million in punitive damages in latest asbestos cancer trial," Tina Bellon, May 24, 2018

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