By Tom Hals, Mike Spector and Dan Levine
(Reuters) -A U.S. appeals court on Monday shot down Johnson & Johnson's attempt to offload tens of thousands of lawsuits over its talc products into bankruptcy court. The ruling marked the first major repudiation of an emerging legal strategy with the potential to upend U.S. corporate liability law.
J&J is among four major companies that have filed so-called Texas two-step bankruptcies to avoid potentially massive lawsuit exposure. The tactic involves creating a subsidiary to absorb the liabilities and to immediately file for Chapter 11.
The court ruled the healthcare conglomerate improperly placed its subsidiary into bankruptcy even though it faced no financial distress. J&J’s two-step sought to halt more than 38,000 lawsuits from plaintiffs alleging the company’s baby powder and other talc products caused cancer. The appeals court ruling revives those lawsuits.
Reuters last year detailed the secret planning of Texas two-steps by Johnson & Johnson and other major firms in a series of reports exploring corporate attempts to evade lawsuits through bankruptcies.
Monday's decision by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia dismissed the bankruptcy filed by the J&J subsidiary in 2021. Before the filing, J&J had faced costs of $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements.
J&J shares closed down 3.7% - the biggest one-day percentage decline in two years. The company said in a statement that it would challenge the ruling and that its talc products are safe.
Plaintiffs attorneys and some legal experts have argued the two-step could set a dangerous precedent, providing a blueprint for any corporation to easily avoid undesirable litigation. The appeals court decision could force companies considering the strategy to more carefully consider its risks, two legal experts said.
“It is a push back on the notion that any company anywhere can use the same tactic to get rid of their mass tort liability,” said Lindsey Simon, a professor at University of Georgia School of Law.
Bankruptcy filings typically suspend litigation in trial courts, forcing plaintiffs into often time-consuming settlement negotiations while leaving them unable to pursue their cases in the courts where they originally sued.
The 3rd Circuit ruling does not apply to three other Texas two-step bankruptcies, filed by subsidiaries of Koch Industries-owned Georgia Pacific, global construction giant Saint-Gobain, and Trane Technologies. Those cases fall under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit appeals court. 3M attempted a similar maneuver, which is currently pending in the 7th Circuit.
Saint-Gobain said in a statement that the 3rd Circuit ruling had "no direct effect" on its subsidiary's Chapter 11 case. The company said it remains confident in the subsidiary's legal ability to reach a "final, full and fair resolution with the asbestos claimants."
The other companies did not comment on the 3rd Circuit ruling or did not immediately respond to inquiries. All have previously defended the two-step bankruptcies as the best way to fairly pay claims. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have countered that the Texas two-step is an improper manipulation of the bankruptcy system. The strategy uses a Texas law to split an existing company in two, creating the new subsidiary meant to shoulder the lawsuits.
New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, valued at more than $400 billion, said its subsidiary’s bankruptcy was initiated in good faith. J&J initially pledged $2 billion to the subsidiary to resolve talc claims and entered into an agreement to fund an eventual settlement approved by a bankruptcy judge.
“Resolving this matter as quickly and efficiently as possible is in the best interests of claimants and all stakeholders,” J&J said.
A three-judge panel on the appeals court rejected J&J’s argument, finding the company’s subsidiary, LTL Management, was created solely to file for Chapter 11 protection but had no legitimate need for it. Only a debtor in financial distress can seek bankruptcy, the panel ruled. The judges pointed out that J&J assured that it would give LTL plenty of money to pay talc claimants.
"Good intentions - such as to protect the J&J brand or comprehensively resolve litigation - do not suffice alone," the judges said in a 56-page opinion. "LTL, at the time of its filing, was highly solvent with access to cash to meet comfortably its liabilities."
The decision could force J&J to fight talc lawsuits for years in trial courts. The company has a mixed record fighting the suits so far. While the firm was hit with major judgments in some cases before filing bankruptcy, more than 1,500 talc lawsuits have been dismissed and the majority of cases that have gone to trial have resulted in verdicts favoring J&J, judgments for the company on appeal, or mistrials, according to its subsidiary's court filings.
A December 2018 Reuters investigation revealed that J&J officials knew for decades about tests showing that the company’s talc sometimes contained traces of carcinogenic asbestos but kept that information from regulators and the public. J&J has said its talc does not contain asbestos and does not cause cancer.
Facing unrelenting litigation, J&J enlisted law firm Jones Day, which had helped other companies execute Texas two-step bankruptcies to address asbestos-related lawsuits.
J&J’s effort, as Reuters reported last year, was internally dubbed “Project Plato,” and employees working on it signed confidentiality agreements. A company lawyer warned them to tell no one, including their spouses, about the plan.
Jones Day did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Texas two-step has garnered criticism from Democratic lawmakers in Washington, and inspired proposed legislation that would severely restrict the practice.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, cheered Monday’s appeals court decision. Whitehouse chaired the first congressional hearing scrutinizing two-step bankruptcies in February of last year.
“Bankruptcy is meant to give honest debtors in unfortunate circumstances a fresh start,” he said, not to allow “large, highly profitable corporations” to avoid accountability for wrongdoing with a legal “shell game.”
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Mike Spector in New York; and Dan Levine in San Francisco; additional reporting by Dietrich Knauth and Chuck Mikolajczak in New York; editing by Bill Berkrot and Brian Thevenot)