Johnson & Johnson must pay at least $37.2 million to four consumers who blamed asbestos-tainted talc for their cancers in the company’s latest loss in nationwide litigation over its iconic baby powder.

A jury in J&J’s hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, concluded Wednesday the company’s handling of the asbestos-laced baby powder and a former product, Shower-to-Shower powder, contributed to the development of cancer in the plaintiffs, said Chris Placitella, one of the group’s lawyers. Jurors awarded a total $37.2 million for the group’s actual damages. The same panel will consider punitive damages later.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Douglas Barden, 65, David Etheridge, 57, D’Angela McNeill-George, 41, and Will Ronning, 46, said they faced long-term exposure to carcinogens as children because their parents used the talc-based powders on them. All have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a specific cancer linked to asbestos. It can take years for the disease to appear.

The verdict is among more than a half-dozen trial losses for J&J. Consumers claim it hid the health risks of the baby powder for 50 years. It’s the first defeat since J&J and Colgate-Palmolive Co. persuaded a Kentucky jury last month to throw out a woman’s mesothelioma claims.

J&J officials said they believe Judge Ana Viscomi erred in several rulings and the company says its Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower weren’t tainted with asbestos.

“We will pursue an appeal of today’s verdict as soon as the final phases of this trial concludes,” Jennifer Taylor, a company spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.

J&J still faces more than 15,000 other lawsuits over the 135-year-old baby powder. That’s up from more than 11,000 as of last year. Its next trials kicked off this week in state courts in California and Georgia.

Hometown Jury

The verdict marks the second time a hometown jury has stung J&J. Another panel ordered the company last year to pay $117 million to an investment banker who blamed asbestos-laced baby powder for his mesothelioma. That included punitive damages.

To be sure, J&J has won defense verdicts at some trials, and judges and appellate courts have set aside other liability finding and damage awards. “All of the verdicts against Johnson & Johnson that have been through the appeals process have been overturned,” Taylor said.

The consumers’ lawyers argued in the New Brunswick trial that internal J&J documents showed officials knew since the late 1960s that baby powder mined in places such as Vermont and Italy contained trace amounts of asbestos, but failed to alert consumers or regulators. Asbestos is often found intertwined with talc when mined.

“We’re here because Johnson & Johnson broke the rules,” Moshe Mamion, another lawyer for the group, said in opening arguments, according to a transcript. “Because there’s asbestos in baby powder and Johnson & Johnson knew it.”

J&J’s lawyers countered that there was no appreciable asbestos in the company’s products and none of the plaintiffs showed their peritoneal mesotheliomas were tied to asbestos exposure.

Diane Sullivan, one of the company’s lawyers, said the consumers found themselves in the unenviable position of having a disease that “no one knows the cause,” according to the transcript.

At the punitive-damages stage next month, jurors will be asked if J&J’s mishandling of the talc-based powders deserves monetary sanction.

The case is Barden v. Brenntag North America, No. L-1809-17, New Jersey Superior Court, County of Middlesex (New Brunswick).