Johnson & Johnson (J&J), a health product company that claims to “believe good health is the foundation of vibrant lives,” apparently didn’t think that value system applied to those who were incarcerated more than 50 years ago. Documents recently unsealed and cited by Bloomberg show that J&J funded an experiment injecting dozens of mostly Black prison inmates with asbestos, allegedly so the company had a point of comparison for the talc used in its baby powder.
Albert Kligman, a dermatologist with the University of Pennsylvania, conducted hundreds of experiments over a time period of 20 years at Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania in research also funded by Dow Chemical and the U.S. government, Bloomberg reported. J&J's involvement was brought to light in trials last year related to claims that cancer-causing asbestos was an ingredient in J&J’s baby powder products. When Bloomberg asked the company about the testing, officials said they regret the company's involvement with Kligman but that the tests weren't performed in violation of research standards at the time.
“We deeply regret the conditions under which these studies were conducted, and in no way do they reflect the values or practices we employ today,” Kim Montagnino, a J&J spokeswoman, said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg. “As the world’s largest healthcare company, our transparent, diligent approach to bioethics is at the heart of all we promise our customers and society.”
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told Bloomberg J&J has for the most part been able to mend fallout from the talc litigation through bankruptcy despite a few plaintiffs who still opted to take their cases to court. In those cases, the company’s files on testing prisoners could be used in court, Tobias said. Jurors in the past weren’t told that that the asbestos study was performed on mostly Black prison inmates in order to avoid prejudicing the jury against J&J, but that could change, Tobias said.
“This is some pretty horrific stuff and the plaintiffs will definitely want to use it to show J&J’s handling of its baby powder line over the years hasn’t been the greatest,” the professor explained. “J&J marketed itself as family-friendly company. This kind of testing doesn’t seem family friendly to me.”
Joseph Satterley, an attorney who represented a California teacher in a case winning her some $26.4 million, told Bloomberg the asbestos experiment showed J&J was worried about asbestos in talc decades earlier. “Why else would they pay Kligman to inject asbestos into prisoners?” he asked. “They didn’t just pick asbestos out of thin air.”
An Alameda County Superior Court jury determined last August that J&J was responsible for Satterley's client, Christina Prudencio, developing mesothelioma, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Satterley told the newspaper that although his client stopped using the powder at 16 years old, her two younger siblings continued using it, exposing Prudencio. J&J blamed Prudencio's cancer on genetics and claimed its product was safe, but it removed the talc-based powder from shelves in May 2020, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Andy Birchfield, an attorney with Beasley Allen Law Firm, said in a news release responding to news of the verdict that J&J's own records "clearly" show "a 50-year-old pattern of corporate cover-ups and manipulation of research on the dangers of talc use." He called the verdict "the latest step in exposing the shameful lengths this company went through to keep selling its iconic product while putting lives in danger."
In response to mounting litigation and the verdict, J&J ended up following through with a scheme Birchfield criticized the company for considering last year.
J&J rolled its baby powder product and associated litigation over to LTL Management, Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner wrote. "Two days after LTL Management was created, it was in federal court filing bankruptcy,” he said. “And now Johnson & Johnson says it’s been relieved of dealing with lawsuits over the powder."
This was about a month after Prudencio's verdict. "Rather than attempt a cynical, greedy ploy to seek insolvency for a $500 billion company, J&J should simply come clean and seek a resolution that acknowledges the company's negligence and establishes a means for fairly compensating victims both now and in the future," Birchfield said in the release.
Ping me when that happens.
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