A New Jersey jury on Monday awarded $3.35 million to a former nurse who blames Johnson & Johnson's vaginal mesh implant for years of severe, chronic pain despite 18 unsuccessful repair surgeries.
It's the first verdict in about 4,000 lawsuits filed against the giant health products maker based in New Brunswick, N.J. At least one plaintiff has won a lawsuit against one of the other 30-plus makers of the once-popular implants, used to lift sagging pelvic organs back into place.
The state Superior Court jury in Atlantic City awarded the compensatory damages to Linda Gross, 47, of Watertown, S.D. Her attorney said pain and other complications caused by the implant forced the former hospital hospice nurse to stop working shortly after her surgery in 2006.
The trial is to begin a second phase on Tuesday, in which the jury will consider whether to also award punitive damages. Under New Jersey law, punitive damages of up to five times the compensatory damage amount are allowed, according to the woman's legal team.
Sheri Woodruff, spokeswoman for J&J's Ethicon Surgical Care subsidiary, noted the jury did not rule against the company on all counts.
The jurors rejected a claim that J&J's former Prolift vaginal mesh implant was designed defectively. Johnson & Johnson stopped selling it last year amid mounting lawsuits.
"While we are always concerned when a patient experiences medical conditions like those suffered by the plaintiff, all surgeries for pelvic organ prolapse present risks of complications," Woodruff said in a statement.
Prolapse occurs when a pelvic organ — the bladder, uterus, vagina, bowel or rectum — droops as muscles weaken due to childbirth, aging, obesity or other factors. That can cause painful intercourse, lower backache, constipation or stress incontinence, meaning bladder leakage usually triggered by coughing, sneezing, lifting heavy objects or exercise.
Mesh implants, made of a porous synthetic or biologic material, are implanted and tied to ligaments or bone to serve as a sort of sling to lift and support the organ involved.
Introduced in the middle of the last decade, they were touted as a safer, easier alternative to hysterectomy or other surgery. Hundreds of thousands of women had them implanted.
Thousands later complained of complications: severe pain, infections and bleeding, generally requiring follow-up surgeries to fix those problems.
The New Jersey jury deliberated for five days, capping a six-week trial before Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee. Following the verdict, Higbee heard arguments from attorneys on both sides as to whether a punitive phase was merited. She ruled in favor of the plaintiff late Monday.
Woodruff said Johnson & Johnson plans to present more evidence to the jury during a punitive phase.
About 1,200 of the 4,000 lawsuits alleging harm from J&J's vaginal mesh implants are pending in New Jersey.
In a statement, Gross called the jury verdict "a resounding victory" for her and tens of thousands of women seeking justice from Prolift's maker. During the trial, she described her life since getting the vaginal implant as a "living hell."
"Sadly, Linda Gross will never get back quality of life she enjoyed prior to 2006," said attorney David Mazie.
Mazie and his partner, Adam Slater, of the Mazie Slater firm in Roseland, N.J., and two other law firms represented the woman and her husband, Jeff Gross.
In trading Monday J&J shares fell 68 cents to close at $75.57 amid a broad market decline.
Linda A. Johnson can be followed at http://twitter.com/LindaJ_onPharma .