A St. Louis jury has awarded nearly US$4.7 billion (NZ$6.9 billion) in damages to 22 women and their families after they claimed asbestos in Johnson & Johnson talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer. Jurors on Thursday awarded the women US$4.14 billion in punitive damages and US$550 million in compensatory damages after a six-week trial in St.

The women also sued a unit of Imerys, which supplied the talc to J&J. Imerys Talc America settled before trial on confidential terms. The company agreed to pay at least US$5 million to settle the claims, according to two persons familiar with the matter.

J&J knew its talc products were contaminated with asbestos and kept this information from reaching the public, Mark Lanier, the plaintiffs' lawyer told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday. J&J sought to protect the image of Baby Powder as "their sacred cow,'' he said.

J&J "rigged'' tests to avoid showing the presence of asbestos, Lanier said. If a test showed the presence of asbestos J&J sent it to a lab the company knew would produce different results, he told the jurors.

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J&J denied any contamination with asbestos or any rigged testing. The accusations of suppressing or ignoring tests didn't make sense, said Peter Bicks, the company's trial counsel.

J&J "hired the best labs in the country year after year after year'' to test for asbestos, he said. "Then someone at J&J decides to expose babies to asbestos? Why all the testing?'' Mineral traces in the talc aren't proof of asbestos contamination, Bicks said. These fibers aren't asbestos but harmless mineral fragments, he said.

J&J has faced multiple trials in St. Louis over ovarian cancer claims, losing four of the first five to go to trial. Two of those plaintiffs' verdicts, one for US$72 million and the other for US$55 million, have been erased on appeal on jurisdictional grounds. The other two are on appeal, facing the same challenges from J&J.

- Bloomberg and Associated Press