A St. Louis jury just ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $120 million to a woman who claimed her ovarian cancer had been caused by her 40+ years of the company’s talcum powder products. The most significant part of the award is the $110 million in punitive damages the jury assessed. Obviously, the jury believed the plaintiff’s claims that J&J knew of the cancer risks of its products, but continued to make and sell them anyway, without warning to users.
Many in the public will focus on this part of the award, and decry the “runaway” jury system, believing this kind of money to be a “windfall” to the plaintiff. But a punitive damages award of this size says that the jury–which by law defines what is reasonable, and reckless, behavior in society–was mad at J&J, and wanted to tell the company, and other companies like it, that you cannot treat people this way. You cannot know that your products create serious health risks for your customers, but keep them in the dark about it. And so the jury sent its message in the only terms that J&J and companies like it understand: money. A lot of money.
Will J&J now think twice before it puts a dangerous product on the market? If so, then the jury and its huge punitive damages award has saved lives and done its job.