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U.S. judge rules talc lawsuits against J&J can proceed, testimony limited

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Thousands of plaintiffs who say that Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ.N) baby powder and talc products caused cancer can go forward with their claims, but face limits on what expert testimony will be allowed in trials after a Monday ruling by a New Jersey judge.

FILE PHOTO: Bottles of Johnson’s baby powder are displayed in a store in New York City, U.S., January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

J&J faces more than 16,000-talc related lawsuits nationwide, the majority of which are pending before U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson in New Jersey. The lawsuits allege that the company’s talc products have been contaminated with asbestos and can cause ovarian cancer.

The company had sought to bar all of the plaintiffs’ experts from testifying, which would have effectively wiped out all the cases before Wolfson.

J&J said in a statement that Monday’s decision “is not a determination by the court on the validity of the plaintiffs’ allegations.” It added that all verdicts against the company in talc lawsuits that had gone through the appeals process have been overturned.

The New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company denies that its talc causes cancer, saying numerous studies and tests by regulators worldwide have shown its talc to be safe and asbestos-free.

The ruling by Wolfson will allow plaintiffs to present expert testimony that talc could be contaminated with asbestos, but prevents them from presenting expert testimony that talc itself causes cancer.

Wolfson also ruled that the plaintiffs’ experts cannot testify that inhaling talc can travel to the ovaries if inhaled, though they may say that it can reach the ovaries when used vaginally.

In so-called multidistrict litigations like the one before Wolfson, in which thousands of lawsuits are consolidated, a handful of cases are designated for early “bellwether” trials, which can help determine the strength of each side’s case and aid in settlement. Testimony in such cases typically relies heavily on experts.

Several lawsuits against J&J over talc in state courts around the country have already gone to trial, including one in St. Louis, Missouri, involving 22 plaintiffs that produced a record $4.69 billion talc verdict against J&J in July 2018. The company is appealing the verdict.

In addition to the civil litigation, J&J faces a federal criminal investigation into how forthright it has been about its talc products’ safety.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown

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