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J&J vaginal mesh lawsuit approaches judgment day in Australia

Angus Whitley

Bloomberg

 /  Tue, November 19, 2019  /  02:17 pm
J&J vaginal mesh lawsuit approaches judgment day in Australia

Female icon illustration. (Shutterstock/Larisa Rudenko)

An Australian judge will rule this week whether Johnson & Johnson hid the risks of its vaginal-mesh products and damaged the organs of women, in the latest ruling in worldwide litigation against the US company over the devices.

Justice Anna Katzmann in Sydney is due to decide Nov. 21 whether Johnson & Johnson and its Ethicon business misled patients about the safety of meshes used to prop up sagging organs and treat incontinence. The class action -- one of Australia’s biggest -- has drawn about 1,250 women, according to the firm leading the suit, Shine Lawyers. They’re seeking unspecified damages.

The federal court decision will mark a significant step on a trail of mesh-related suits against New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest maker of health-care products. Thousands of cases have been filed in North America, Europe and the Middle East and the company still faces nearly 20,000 lawsuits from women who allege their vaginal meshes caused them injury, according to its latest securities filing.

The devices, often implanted after childbirth, were designed to repair pelvic organ prolapse. It’s a common condition in women that develops when the muscles holding in the bladder and uterus weaken and organs start to protrude from the vagina. Thousands of patients used the device in Australia among more than 100,000 worldwide.

The Australian suit, which went to court in July 2017, alleged the implants were defective and warnings accompanying them were inadequate, said Rebecca Jancauskas, special counsel at Shine’s class-action department.

As many as 5,000 more people in Australia may be eligible to join the claim for damages, according to Jancauskas, who said she expected the court to set a registration deadline extending well into 2020. “We continue to be contacted by women each week,” she said.

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Mesh ‘complications’

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said its Ethicon unit “empathizes with women who have experienced complications following pelvic mesh procedures.”

“However, it’s important to note pelvic mesh has helped improve the quality of life for millions of women,” Johnson & Johnson said. “Ethicon has acted ethically and responsibly in the research, development and supply of these products.”

Since vaginal mesh complaints began to emerge almost a decade ago, Johnson & Johnson has been hit with more than $200 million in damage awards to compensate women for their injuries, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Some of the payments have been thrown out on appeal and the company also has won a number of cases at trial.

Johnson & Johnson also has paid more than $240 million in settlements over claims it hid risks and marketed the device too aggressively to U.S. doctors and patients, according to Bloomberg data, public court records and people familiar with those accords.

As part of those settlements, Johnson & Johnson agreed last month to pay $117 million to resolve 41 states’ claims it misrepresented the meshes’ risks. A California judge also currently is weighing whether to slap the company with about $800 million in penalties over the state’s claims the mesh devices were fraudulently marketed.

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