By Tina Bellon and Tom Hals
(Reuters) - A key supplier of talc used in Johnson & Johnson's baby powder filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday in the wake of multibillion-dollar lawsuits alleging its products caused ovarian cancer and asbestos-related mesothelioma.
Imerys Talc America, the U.S. unit of French group Imerys SA, said it filed for bankruptcy because it lacks the financial clout to defend against nearly 15,000 lawsuits over its talc mineral product.
Imerys said that while it continued to believe the lawsuits are without merit, the prospect of rising settlement and defence costs over the next few years prompted the decision to file for bankruptcy.
They also cite a multibillion-dollar verdict against Johnson & Johnson and the ensuing media attention as factors that led to the Chapter 11 filing.
In July, a Missouri jury ordered J&J to pay a record $4.69 billion (3.65 billion pounds) to 22 women who said asbestos in talc caused ovarian cancer. The healthcare conglomerate has said it is appealing that verdict.
Imerys settled for an undisclosed amount prior to the trial.
Imerys and J&J have repeatedly denied the allegations, saying numerous studies and tests by regulators worldwide have shown their talc to be safe.
J&J on Wednesday declined to comment on Imerys Talc America's Chapter 11 filing.
Reuters on Dec. 14 published a report detailing that J&J knew that the talc in its raw and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos from the 1970s into the early 2000s - test results it did not disclose to regulators or consumers.
J&J has said that its talc products do not contain asbestos.
Bankruptcy provides Imerys a single forum to settle the widespread litigation. A similar strategy has been used by numerous companies facing litigation over faulty breast implants, asbestos-tainted products and recalled automotive airbags.
"After carefully evaluating all possible options, we determined that pursuing Chapter 11 protection is the best course of action to address our historic talc-related liabilities and position the filing companies for continued growth," Imerys Talc America said in a statement.
Two North American subsidiaries of Imerys, Imerys Talc Vermont and Imerys Talc Canada, also filed for Chapter 11 on Wednesday.
Mark Lanier, a Texas-based lawyer representing many of the more than 11,700 talc plaintiffs, on Wednesday said Imerys Talc America's bankruptcy would not change the litigation.
"We have always targeted our cases against J&J and Colgate Palmolive, the companies that put the asbestos laced talc into the products," Lanier said.
Colgate-Palmolive is another defendant in the U.S. talc litigation. The New York-based company sold Cashmere Bouquet, a cosmetic talcum powder, from 1871 to 1995.
Colgate did not respond to a request for comment. It has denied allegations that its talc products cause cancer.
(Additional reporting by Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Editing Bill Berkrot)