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Reuters: J&J knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its baby powder

An investigation found that Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder was sometimes tainted with asbestos, a fact the New Jersey company kept from the public for decades.

File photo of Johnson’s Baby Powder
File photo of Johnson’s Baby PowderRead moreJeff Chiu / Associated Press

Johnson & Johnson’s drop of 11 percent in Friday’s trading may bring on déjà vu for some investors after a Reuters report said the company knew for decades that asbestos was sometimes present in its baby powder.

Bloomberg News reported in September 2017 that documents unsealed in a lawsuit showed that J&J has known for decades that its talc products include asbestos fibers and that the exposure to those fibers can cause ovarian cancer.

The last time shares of the New Brunswick, N.J.-based drugmaker came under this much pressure was due to asbestos concerns back in February, after traders circulated a blog post focused on worries about what might be uncovered during litigation. The shares fell as much as 11 percent that day, even as Wells Fargo called the concerns overblown. Analyst Lawrence Biegelsen reiterated that call Friday and said the drugmaker’s liability would be just $6.5 billion if the current number of cases were to double.

Fast forward to Friday, where the intraday move wiped out as much as $45 billion in market value. Susquehanna litigation analyst Tom Claps said in an email that “today’s Reuters story about J&J’s talc litigation is not ‘new news.' ” In July, a jury ordered the company to pay $4.69 billion to women who claimed asbestos in the products caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

J&J is facing other legal pressures as well. It has started settling thousands of claims that allegedly defective artificial hips sold by the company hurt patients. Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the company was willing to pay more than $400 million to settle about 3,300 of the 10,000 suits targeting its Pinnacle line of hip-replacement devices, citing people familiar with the matter.

Shares of J&J fell 10 percent to close at $133.00 in New York after earlier touching as low as $130.20.

“J&J has been facing talc/asbestos litigation for years,” Claps wrote in response to questions. He said there have been a number of trials where plaintiffs showed evidence suggesting the company knew and concealed the risks. “Interestingly,” he said, “J&J’s stock has taken a bigger hit today than it did after that $4.7B verdict.”

Bloomberg Intelligence litigation analysts Aude Gerspacher and Holly Froum estimate that the company could be on the hook for as much as $10 billion to $20 billion in settlements from an estimated 11,000 pending talc cases.