McDonald’s faces 25 new sexual harassment complaints from workers

FILE PHOTO: The logo of a McDonald's Corp restaurant is seen in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – McDonald’s Corp was accused on Tuesday in 25 new lawsuits and regulatory charges of condoning sexual harassment in the workplace and retaliating against employees who speak up.

The cases announced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the labor group Fight for $15, and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund cover alleged misconduct at McDonald’s locations in 20 U.S. cities, including groping, indecent exposure, propositions for sex, and lewd comments.

McDonald’s is one of the world’s most recognizable brands, and the cases make the fast-food chain a primary target of a campaign to extend the #MeToo movement, which sprung from sexual harassment cases in Hollywood, to the workplace.

The Chicago-based company said it has more than 14,000 locations in the United States with some 850,000 workers.

More than 90 percent of the locations are franchised, and McDonald’s has long maintained it should not be liable for how employees in franchised restaurants behave.

Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook said his company has improved and more clearly defined its harassment policies, has trained most franchise owners, and will be training front-line employees and setting up a complaint hotline.

“McDonald’s is sending a clear message that we are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected,” Easterbrook wrote in letters this week to Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, who supports the workers’ cause.

The 25 cases include three new lawsuits, two by workers who previously filed charges, and charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

McDonald’s has faced more than 50 such charges and lawsuits in the last three years, the ACLU said. Last September, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities staged a one-day strike to protest alleged sexual harassment.

Jamelia Fairley, a single mother who makes $9.60 an hour at a corporate-owned McDonald’s in Sanford, Florida, told reporters she went to the EEOC after a co-worker began groping her, rubbing against her and saying he could “give me a ride.”

She said that after she reported the harassment, McDonald’s transferred but did not fire her harasser, while her boss cut her weekly hours to seven from 25,

“Trying to raise a 2-year old on $67 a week is, well, I can’t do it,” Fairley said.

Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up fund, which is part of the National Women’s Law Center, said having to put up with workplace harassment should not be a cost of making a living.

“For McDonald’s, time is past up,” she said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Bill Berkrot)

Spurned students sue U.S. colleges in admissions scandal

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The U.S. college admissions scandal that erupted this week has spawned lawsuits accusing rich, well-connected parents and prestigious schools of conspiring to admit those parents’ children at the expense of the less affluent.

Lawsuits began emerging on Wednesday, a day after federal prosecutors said a California company made about $25 million from parents seeking spots for their children in top schools including Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Yale University.

Fifty people, including 33 parents, have been criminally charged in the nation’s largest known college admissions scandal. The accused mastermind, William Singer, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.

In one civil lawsuit, Stanford students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods said they were denied a fair opportunity to win admission to Yale and USC because of alleged racketeering, and said their degrees from Stanford will be devalued.

Singer and eight schools, including Stanford, were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

Another lawsuit by Joshua Toy and his mother said he was denied college admission despite a 4.2 grade point average, and seeks $500 billion of damages from 45 defendants for defrauding and inflicting emotional distress on everyone whose “rights to a fair chance” to enter college was stolen.

The defendants, in that case, include Singer and accused parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, and TPG private equity partner William McGlashan Jr.

“These class-action cases are opportunistic creatures of lawyers trying to obtain a windfall,” Donald Heller, a lawyer for Singer, said in a phone interview.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Both lawsuits were filed in California. More lawsuits are likely.

Prosecutors said Singer used his Edge College & Career Network and an affiliated nonprofit to help prospective students cheat on college admission tests and bribe coaches to inflate their athletic credentials.

The Stanford case is notable because that school is among the country’s most prestigious and selective, admitting just 4.3 percent of its applicants last year.

But Olsen and Woods said their degrees are “now not worth as much” because prospective employers might question whether they were admitted on merit, or had parents whose bribes got them in.

A Stanford spokesman said the university is reviewing the lawsuit.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)

Exclusive: OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma exploring bankruptcy – sources

FILE PHOTO: Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin pills, made by Purdue Pharma LP sit on a counter at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah, U.S., April 25, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey

By Mike Spector and Jessica DiNapoli

(Reuters) – OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP is exploring filing for bankruptcy to address potentially significant liabilities from thousands of lawsuits alleging the drug manufacturer contributed to the deadly opioid crisis sweeping the United States, people familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The deliberations show how Purdue and its wealthy owners, the Sackler family, are under pressure to respond to mounting litigation accusing the pharmaceutical company of misleading doctors and patients about risks associated with prolonged use of its prescription opioids.

Purdue denies the allegations, arguing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved labels for its opioids carried warnings about the risk of abuse and misuse associated with the drugs.

Filing for Chapter 11 protection would halt the lawsuits and allow the drugmaker to negotiate legal claims with plaintiffs under the supervision of a U.S. bankruptcy judge, the sources said.

More than 1,000 lawsuits accusing Purdue and other opioid manufacturers of using deceptive practices to push addictive drugs that led to fatal overdoses are consolidated in an Ohio federal court. Purdue has held discussions to resolve the litigation with plaintiffs’ lawyers who have often compared the cases to widespread lawsuits against the tobacco industry that resulted in a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

A Purdue bankruptcy filing is not certain, the sources said. The Stamford, Connecticut, drug maker has not made any final decisions and could instead continue fighting the lawsuits, they said.

“As a privately-held company, it has been Purdue Pharma’s longstanding policy not to comment on our financial or legal strategy,” Purdue said in a statement.

“We are, however, committed to ensuring that our business remains strong and sustainable. We have ample liquidity and remain committed to meeting our obligations to the patients who benefit from our medicines, our suppliers and other business partners.”

Purdue faces a May trial in a case brought by Oklahoma’s attorney general that, like others, accuses the company of contributing to a wave of fatal overdoses by flooding the market with highly addictive opioids while falsely claiming the drugs were safe. The court proceedings will be televised.

Purdue tapped law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for restructuring advice, Reuters reported in August, fueling concerns among litigants including Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter that the company might seek bankruptcy protection before the trial.

(Reporting by Mike Spector and Jessica DiNapoli in New York)

California tells Trump that lawsuit over border wall is ‘imminent’

FILE PHOTO: The prototypes for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall are seen behind the border fence between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

By David Morgan and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – California will “imminently” challenge President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to obtain funds for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Sunday.

“Definitely and imminently,” Becerra told ABC’s “This Week” program when asked whether and when California would sue the Trump administration in federal court. Other states controlled by Democrats are expected to join the effort.

“We are prepared, we knew something like this might happen. And with our sister state partners, we are ready to go,” he said.

Trump invoked the emergency powers on Friday under a 1976 law after Congress rebuffed his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall that was a signature 2016 campaign promise.

The move is intended to allow him to redirect money appropriated by Congress for other purposes to wall construction.

The White House says Trump will have access to about $8 billion. Nearly $1.4 billion was allocated for border fencing under a spending measure approved by Congress last week, and Trump’s emergency declaration is aimed at giving him another $6.7 billion for the wall.

Becerra cited Trump’s own comment on Friday that he “didn’t need to do this” as evidence that the emergency declaration is legally vulnerable.

“It’s become clear that this is not an emergency, not only because no one believes it is but because Donald Trump himself has said it’s not,” he said.

Becerra and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, have been expected to sue to block Trump’s move.

Becerra told ABC that California and other states are waiting to learn which federal programs will lose money to determine what kind of harm the states could face from the declaration.

He said California may be harmed by less federal funding for emergency response services, the military and stopping drug trafficking.

“We’re confident there are at least 8 billion ways that we can prove harm,” Becerra said.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violates the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could at least slow down Trump’s efforts to build the wall but would likely end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Congress never defined a national emergency in the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which has been invoked dozens of times without a single successful legal challenge.

Democrats in Congress have vowed to challenge Trump’s declaration and several Republican lawmakers have said they are not certain whether they would support the president.

“I think many of us are concerned about this,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump could, however, veto any resolution of disapproval from Congress.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News on Sunday that Trump’s declaration would allow the administration to build “hundreds of miles” of border wall by September 2020.

“We have 120-odd miles that are already under construction or are already obligated plus the additional funds we have and then we’re going to outlay; we’re going to look at a few hundred miles.”

Trump’s proposed wall and wider immigration policies are likely to be a major campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election in November 2020, where he will seek a second four-year term.

(Reporting by David Morgan and David Lawder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

PG&E, owner of biggest U.S. power utility, files for bankruptcy

FILE PHOTO: PG&E crew work on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Power provider PG&E Corp filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, succumbing to liabilities stemming from wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

The owner of the biggest U.S. power utility has filed a motion seeking court approval for a $5.5 billion debtor-in-possession financing, it said in a statement.

PG&E listed assets of $71.39 billion and liabilities of $51.69 billion, in a court document filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California.

“Throughout this process, we are fully committed to enhancing our wildfire safety efforts, as well as helping restoration and rebuilding efforts across the communities impacted by the devastating Northern California wildfires,” PG&E interim Chief Executive Officer John Simon said.

The company said it intends to pay suppliers in full under normal terms for goods and services provided on or after the date of the Chapter 11 filing.

Separately, PG&E shareholder BlueMountain Capital Management LLC said it was “deeply disappointed” that the company’s board ignored calls from multiple parties to abandon its “reckless and irresponsible plan to file for bankruptcy.”

The investment firm said it would propose a slate of board directors no later than Feb. 21, and urged all PG&E stakeholders to support change at the company.

PG&E, which had a debt burden of more than $18 billion, said earlier this month it would need to pursue a court-supervised reorganization in the aftermath of the blazes, including November’s so-called Camp Fire.

The Camp Fire broke out on the morning of Nov. 8 near the mountain community of Paradise, sweeping through the town and killing at least 86 people, in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Reinsurance company Munich Re termed the Camp Fire as the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 and earlier this month pegged the overall losses from it at $16.5 billion.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy once before in 2001, warned in November it could face “significant liability” in excess of its insurance coverage if its equipment was found to have caused the Camp Fire and other destructive wildfires.

Earlier this month, a state fire agency said PG&E equipment was not to blame for a 2017 wildfire in California’s wine country, but the company faces dozens of lawsuits from owners of homes and businesses that burned during that and other 2017 fires.

The San Francisco-based company provides electricity and natural gas to more than six million customers in Northern California. Last year, lawmakers gave it permission to raise rates to cover wildfire losses from 2017. But elected officials this month showed little appetite for new rate hikes or other maneuvers to prevent a bankruptcy filing.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Big claims strain senior living market for U.S. insurers

FILE PHOTO: A senior citizen, walks down the hallway with the aide of her walker to visit a neighbor at her independent living complex in Silver Spring, Maryland April 11, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – Last March, a 103-year-old resident of a Sunrise Senior Living facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, went on a field trip to the movies.  Ruth Smith, who used a walker, fell down two concrete steps in the theater and died about six weeks later. Now Smith’s estate is suing Sunrise, saying that aides did not properly watch her.

As the U.S. society ages, senior living communities are on the rise. So are claims and lawsuits against them. And when they lose, it is usually down to insurers to pay up.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity that has pretty specific challenges,” said Brendan Gallagher, who heads the senior care business at insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher Co.

Some senior living facilities could see insurance rate hikes in 2019 as high as 30 percent, according to insurance broker Willis Towers Watson.

Fewer insurers are offering coverage today than they were five years ago and some Lloyd’s of London members stopped writing the coverage during the past year, said John Atkinson, managing partner at Willis.

Some insurers are dropping coverage of those communities entirely while others are avoiding litigious locations such as Kentucky, Illinois and Florida, said insurers and brokers.

While the pullback threatens to raise costs for families, other insurers are expanding, betting on the industry’s strong growth prospects.

The number of people living in U.S. residential care facilities has grown by over 10 percent to 812,000 between 2010 and 2016, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the industry gears up for the arrival of the greying 74-million baby boom generation, senior living facilities have grown even faster. The number of rooms in those centers has risen up by a fifth since 2013, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), which collects data for the 99 largest U.S. metro areas.

While aging is a global phenomenon and the U.S. society is relatively younger than those in Europe and North Asia, its greater dependence on senior centers confronts it with challenges other nations may yet have to grapple with.

More so than previous U.S. generations, today’s elderly often live far away from their children. In Europe, seniors tend to live much closer to their relatives or in communities that provide generous government services for the elderly. In many Asian and African communities, multiple generations commonly live together.

Not only do more people move into retirement communities, but they tend to do it later than they used to, resulting in more frequent and severe injuries, insurance professionals say.

“People are living longer and they are frailer,” said Gloria Holland, vice president of finance at Capital Senior Living Corp, a Dallas-based company that runs 129 communities across the country.

A spokeswoman for Sunrise Assisted Living, where Smith lived, said the company had policies and procedures in place to help promote resident safety. “Anytime we lose a member of our community we are deeply saddened,” she said.

Falls are the biggest risk. Allegations of falls account for nearly half of all assisted living claims that insurer CNA Financial Group closed in 2016 and 2017, the company said.

Another source of insurance claims are “memory care” centers, which cater to people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of memory problems.

The nascent sector has grown 52 percent since 2013, according to NIC. A big issue there: residents who wander away.

Last year, the body of 77-year-old Audrey Penn was found in a ditch after she left a senior living community in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A lawsuit filed by her family settled for an undisclosed amount.

A CHANGING AMERICA

Capital Senior Living’s Holland said the average age of residents who moved to its facilities was between 78 and 80 when she joined the company in 2004 and has risen to between 82 to 84 by now. That makes individual claims more expensive to settle. The company anticipates a 5 percent rate increase when it renews its insurance in 2019, Holland said.

Higher rates and deductibles are more likely to affect smaller facilities, which may lack robust compliance programs for preventing accidents and other problems, insurers and brokers say. Smaller centers often “struggle to keep up with changing regulations,” said Caroline Clouser, who heads the healthcare industry practice at insurer Chubb Ltd.

Insurance premiums for senior facilities vary by state. Premiums for each assisted living apartment range from $150 to $600 annually, insurers and brokers say.

Insurance for those facilities makes up less than 1 percent of the $558 billion property and casualty insurers collected in net written premiums in 2017. Yet it is likely to grow as aging boomers fill up senior communities, industry insiders say.

Nationwide is among the companies that have been growing their senior living insurance business while being selective, said Jeremy Moore, senior living underwriting manager.

“You have to understand what the exposures are and the controls in place,” he said.

Nationwide has a team of former senior living executives and administrators who visit communities and look at everything from building maintenance to evacuation procedures, Moore said.

Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Company, which writes coverage for the industry in 49 states, is planning to expand into Florida, the remaining state, in 2019, according to Jim Ketterson, who heads the insurer’s senior living practice.

Brokers are also working to help senior living communities better manage their risk. Willis recently launched a program to help facilities learn how to more safely lift residents.

Willis also runs a webinar on active shooter events, including tips such using beds to block doors that do not lock, a common feature in memory care facilities.

Senior living companies also keep reviewing their facilities and procedures, they say. For example, Capital Senior Living is gradually replacing carpet flooring with laminate, which is less of a trip hazard, Holland said. It is also considering a technology that can help track residents’ movements to determine if they are at risk of a fall.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn. Editing by Neal Templin and Tomasz Janowski)

Trump questions 3-D gun sales as U.S. states sue

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the economy while delivering remarks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday raised concerns about the sale of plastic guns made with 3-D printers, a day after several U.S. states sued his administration to block the imminent online publication of designs to make the weapons.

Eight states and the District of Columbia on Monday filed a lawsuit to fight a June settlement between the federal government and Defense Distributed allowing the Texas-based company to legally publish its designs. Its downloadable plans are set to go online on Wednesday.

The legal wrangling is the latest fight over gun rights in the United States, where a series of mass shootings in recent years has re-ignited the long-simmering debate over access to firearms.

“I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” Trump said in a Twitter post that referred to the powerful National Rifle Association lobbying group. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

Representatives for the U.S. State Department, which signed off on the settlement allowing publication of the designs to go forward, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which also signed off on the settlement, said the issue was a matter for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a spokeswoman said.

NRA officials were not immediately available for comment.

The states are asking a U.S. judge to issue an injunction to block the online distribution of the gun blueprints. They say the U.S. government has failed to study the national and state security implications of the decision and violated states’ rights to regulate firearms.

Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, said the case was not about guns but instead about protecting the constitutional free speech rights of his client.

“I don’t care what President Trump says. I will be arguing to protect my client’s First Amendment rights,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Defense Distributed’s website said it would publish the files on Wednesday but blueprints for seven guns already were available for download on Tuesday. The company’s founder, self-declared anarchist Cody Wilson, told media outlets on Monday that the files went up late Friday evening.

Mark Kelly, who co-founded a gun reform group with his wife, former Democratic U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 shooting, criticized Trump for his tweet.

“He should go to the State Department, not the NRA,” he said.

Kelly said Trump should tell the department the blueprints should remain restricted under international arms trafficking regulations.

The states, in their filing on Monday, argued the online plans will give criminals easy access to weapons by circumventing traditional sales and regulations.

Gun rights groups have been largely dismissive of concerns about 3-D printable guns, saying the technology is expensive and the guns unreliable.

The gun plans were pulled from the internet in 2013 by order of the U.S. State Department under international gun trafficking laws. Wilson sued in 2015, claiming the order infringed his constitutional rights.

Until recently, the government argued the blueprints posed a national security risk. Gun control groups said there had been no explanation for the June settlement and the administration’s abrupt reversal on the issue.

Wilson said in an online video that the blueprints were downloaded more than 400,000 times before they were taken down in 2013.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tina Bellon in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Bill Trott)

TSA screeners win immunity from flier abuse claims: U.S. appeals court

FILE PHOTO: A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official's wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Fliers may have a tough time recovering damages for invasive screenings at U.S. airport security checkpoints, after a federal appeals court on Wednesday said screeners are immune from claims under a federal law governing assaults, false arrests and other abuses.

In a 2-1 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners are shielded by government sovereign immunity from liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act because they do not function as “investigative or law enforcement officers.”

The majority said it was “sympathetic” to concerns that its decision would leave fliers with “very limited legal redress” for alleged mistreatment by aggressive or overzealous screeners, which add to the ordinary stresses of air travel.

“For most people, TSA screenings are an unavoidable feature of flying,” but it is “squarely in the realm” of Congress to expand liability for abuses, Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote.

The decision, the first on the issue by a federal appeals court, was a defeat for Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida.

She and her husband had sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution over a July 2006 altercation at Philadelphia International Airport.

Pellegrino on Wednesday said she was reviewing the decision. A lawyer who helped with her appeal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to court papers, Pellegrino had been randomly selected for additional screening at the Philadelphia airport before boarding a US Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Pellegrino, then 57, objected to the invasiveness of the search, but conditions deteriorated and she was later jailed for about 18 hours, the papers show. Criminal charges were filed, and Pellegrino was acquitted at a March 2008 trial.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro dissented from Wednesday’s decision.

“By analogizing TSA searches to routine administrative inspections, my colleagues preclude victims of TSA abuses from obtaining any meaningful remedy for a variety of intentional tort claims,” he wrote.

Torts are civil wrongs that can result in damages.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia, whose office represented TSA officials, had no immediate comment.

The appeals court ruled 11 months after throwing out a First Amendment claim by an architect, Roger Vanderklok, who said he was arrested in retaliation for asking to file a complaint against an ill-tempered TSA supervisor.

The case is Pellegrino et al v U.S. Transportation Security Administration et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

J&J Baby Powder litigation takes new focus with asbestos claims

FILE PHOTO: Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A $117 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson and a supplier in favor of a man who said his asbestos-related cancer was caused by long-term use of J&J’s Baby Powder could open a new front for thousands of cases claiming the widely-used product caused cancer, legal experts and plaintiffs lawyers said.

J&J has been battling some 6,000 cases claiming its baby powder and Shower to Shower products cause ovarian cancer. The $117 million verdict by a New Jersey jury last week, however, involved a different form of cancer that is clearly linked to asbestos.

Plaintiffs lawyers claim that internal J&J documents seen in that trial show that baby powder had been contaminated with asbestos. They now plan to use the documents in upcoming ovarian cancer trials to allege that the asbestos contamination also caused that form of cancer.

J&J and Imerys Talc America, a unit of Imerys SA, have vowed to appeal the New Jersey verdict and deny asbestos has ever been present in their products or that their talc can cause any form of cancer.

The case of Stephen Lanzo, a New Jersey resident who claimed he developed mesothelioma after using baby powder since his birth in 1972, was the first time a jury saw the internal J&J documents which plaintiffs claim show that J&J knew since the 1970s that the talc in its baby powder was contaminated by asbestos during the mining process.

J&J says the documents present no such evidence, but merely show the company’s caution.

Peter Bicks, a lawyer leading J&J’s talc asbestos defense, said that in the early 1970s, the company was looking at how it could potentially remove asbestos from talc if the two became intermingled in the mining process. He says no contamination was ever found, citing decades of testing by independent laboratories and scientists.

Bicks called the claims of a link between talc and asbestos “junk science.”

Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer closely associated with exposure to asbestos, affects the delicate tissue that lines body cavities.

While the link between asbestos and mesothelioma is sufficiently established, scientists are divided on whether asbestos exposure can cause ovarian cancer. Some studies have shown an association between the two, while other studies have found no such link.

Elizabeth Burch, holder of the Charles H. Kirbo Chair of Law at the University of Georgia, said it remained an open question whether talc contained asbestos and that each case would turn on the facts.

But J&J, which had $76.5 billion in sales in 2017, gives the plaintiffs’ bar an enticing new target, said Nathan Schachtman, a lecturer at Columbia University who used to defend asbestos cases.

Some 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, according to the American Cancer Society, a number that Howard Erichson, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in mass tort litigation, called significant from a legal standpoint.

But the roughly 22,000 women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, according to the National Cancer Institute, provide lawyers with a potentially much larger pool of plaintiffs to tap.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Lanier, one of the lawyers representing consumers, who said plaintiffs would file thousands of additional mesothelioma and ovarian cancer cases.

New Jersey-based J&J in a statement after the Lanzo verdict said plaintiffs’ attorneys had shifted their strategy to focus on asbestos after a series of losses at trial and in court rulings over previous allegations that the talc itself causes cancer.

Of the six ovarian cancer trials to date, juries found J&J liable five times, but a Missouri appellate court threw out the first verdict and a California judge tossed another. Appeals of the other cases are pending.

J&J in November also won the first trial over allegations that its talc contained asbestos and caused a woman’s mesothelioma. Plaintiffs lawyers say the jury in that case did not see the documents presented during the Lanzo trial.

But Erichson said the widespread use of J&J’s consumer products generally make the company an attractive litigation target.

“Baby powder is as ubiquitous a product you can think of and there are lots of people who can testify they’ve been exposed to it,” he said.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Adler)

Arkansas sues opioid manufacturers for roles in epidemic

A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – Arkansas’ attorney general on Thursday joined the widening mass of litigation against opioid manufacturers, accusing three drugmakers of promoting addictive painkillers in ways that falsely denied or trivialized their risks.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a lawsuit in state court in Little Rock accusing Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson, Johnson and Endo International Plc of engaging in misleading marketing practices.

The case made Arkansas at least the 17th U.S. state to sue manufacturers of prescription opiods amid a nationwide epidemic of addiction to the painkillers.

The lawsuit contended the drugmakers spent millions of dollars on promotional activities that downplayed the risks of addiction associated with opioids while falsely touting the benefits of using the drugs to treat chronic pain.

“The reckless actions of these opioid manufacturers have wreaked havoc upon Arkansas and her citizens for far too long,” Rutledge said in a statement.

Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, denied the allegations in a statement while saying it is “deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis.”

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit – which manufactures drugs including the opioid Duragesic, a form of fentanyl – called its marketing activities “appropriate and responsible.” Endo did not respond to a request for comment.

Prescription opioids are intended to treat pain, but the outbreak of addiction to the drugs has led to a tsunami of lawsuits by cities and counties. The lawsuits have sought to recoup damages from drugmakers for their role in the epidemic.

Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 433 lawsuits are consolidated before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland, who has been pushing for a quick settlement and has invited state attorneys general with cases and probes not before him to participate in the talks.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers pursuing the case have generally not quantified the potential costs involved in the cases but have compared them with litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to 1998’s $246 billion settlement.

The U.S. Justice Department in a March 1 filing sought 30 days to evaluate participating in the litigation, citing the “substantial costs that the federal government has borne as a result of the opioid epidemic.”

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis)