Missouri’s Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund received a contribution of more than $480 million the week after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb a $2.1 billion judgment against Johnson & Johnson.
The award stems from a 2018 verdict in St. Louis on behalf of 22 women and their families alleging J&J’s talcum powder contained microscopic asbestos fibers that caused ovarian cancer. Eric Holland of the Holland Law Firm in St. Louis, who helped represent the plaintiffs in the mass tort case, said his firm wired the funds to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office the week of June 14.
The Missouri legislature established the fund in 1987 to help compensate tort victims who have been unable to obtain full compensation for their injuries because the party at fault had little or no insurance, or had filed for bankruptcy.
Under state law, once a case reaches final disposition, 50 percent of any punitive damages award, minus attorneys’ fees and expenses, must be deposited into the fund.
Johnson & Johnson had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the 2018 verdict, which was originally $4.69 billion and was the top plaintiffs’ win that year as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media. The high court declined the company’s petition for certiorari on June 1.
That left in place a ruling last year by the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, which held that the damages should be reduced to $2.1 billion because the St. Louis judge did not have jurisdiction to hear claims from out-of-state plaintiffs. The Missouri Supreme Court also declined to review the case.
Contributions to the victims’ fund are uncommon because most cases settle prior to final disposition. According to the Missouri State Treasurer’s Office, the fund totaled $2.9 million as of May 28.
The last well-publicized large contribution to the fund was in 2019, when the Kansas City law firm Ketchmark & McCreight deposited $10 million following final disposition of a wrongful-death suit against the Ford Motor Company.
Holland said it’s “incredibly rewarding” to be able to contribute to the fund. It’s his first time doing so.
“The fact that people who weren’t able to get full compensation from their original case from lack of insurance or not enough insurance [will be able to do so], I think that’s a great day for Missouri and a great day for people being compensated the way they should be.”
Under state law, 26 percent of the Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund goes to the state’s four Legal Services agencies. With the recent contribution, such organizations will see an influx of nearly $125 million.
The remaining 74 percent goes to assist uncompensated tort victims.
Holland noted that the annual budgets of groups like Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Legal Aid of Western Missouri typically are in the ballpark of $10 million to $12 million a year.
“This money is going to make a difference for a long time,” he said.
The news is still a little hard for Dan Glazier, executive director of LSEM, to wrap his head around.
“Can one dare to dream?” he said. “This is really meaningful and we’re certainly excited about the possibility.”
Glazier said his organization does not yet have the details on how much it will receive and when it will receive funds. He said the funds will be apportioned amongst the legal aid groups based on the poverty population in their respective service areas.
He said the funds will help LSEM make great strides in filling the access-to-justice gap, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited resources, he said LSEM is constantly having to draw lines in terms of who it can help.
“This kind of influx of funds would allow us to move that line some,” he said. “The line would still be there, but we could move it out. That’s a beautiful thing. Lives will be saved, children’s futures will be improved, seniors will have greater peace of mind during these challenging times and families who struggle each and every day, this will help us to help them to get closer to that American dream.”
The case is Ingham et al. v. Johnson & Johnson et al., 20-1223.