When and How to Seek Punitive Damages in a Product Liability Case | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Shortly before this article was written, the jury that heard a product liability case in St. Louis ordered personal care products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to pay 22 women a total of $4.64 billion. The women had developed cancer after using the company’s talcum powder for decades.

Evidence presented during the trial convinced jurors that Johnson & Johnson executives knew that the products contained asbestos fibers but did nothing to warn users about this danger. To penalize the company, the jury members assessed $4.14 billion in punitive damages. The rest of the verdict represented $550 million in compensation to the women for medical bills, disability and, in some instances, deaths.


While this case over talcum powder made international headlines, many people who suffer injuries or get killed by dangerous and defective products have the legal option to seek punitive damages. These are noncriminal fines meant to sanction a product’s designer, manufacturer or marketer for failing to meet its duty to warn or for breaching a warranty. Punitive damages are also intended to warn other companies about the consequences of putting consumers at risk.

In Virginia, the person or group that files a product liability claim must show that the company named as the defendant acted negligently or recklessly. In the talcum powder case, Johnson & Johnson was found negligent for not alerting women about the dangers of regularly exposing themselves to asbestos fibers. In cases successfully litigated by our Virginia-based product liability law firm, on the other hand, companies have been found negligent for failing to fix design flaws, failure to inform consumers about explosion dangers and failure to replace recalled components.

Except in medical malpractice lawsuits, Virginia laws do not limit the amount of money a plaintiff can receive in punitive damages. The award from the St. Louis jury is definitely large, but it comes in light of evidence that Johnson & Johnson likely knew of asbestos in its products since the early 1970s and that everyone knew about the deadly dangers of asbestos since before that time. Persisting in exposing the women to undisclosed but known risks merits a significant penalty.

Suffering harm after using a product will not suffice, however. A Virginia plaintiff, with the help of a dangerous or defective product lawyer, must convince a jury that

  • The defendant designed, made or sold the product,
  • An injury or death occurred,
  • That harm resulted from use of the product, and
  • The defendant knew about the danger or defect but did not act to warn or protect the plaintiff.

Doing all these things will enable a plaintiff to receive compensatory damages even if punitive damages are not sought.