Millions from talcum powder lawsuit funneled to legal services for Missourians in poverty

(The Center Square) – A portion of punitive damages from a liability lawsuit ruling on cancer-causing talcum powder will increase funding for civil legal services for Missourians in poverty.

“This is a game changer for us,” Dan Wichmer, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri, said in an interview with The Center Square. “We face a severe shortage of attorneys because we don’t have sufficient funds to pay them. There’s a huge need from our clients. Inflation is crippling our clients and we’re seeing more problems arising from that and the pandemic’s after effects.”

Last month, the Missouri legislature passed and Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed into law a supplemental budget bill appropriating $126 million to Missouri Legal Services, which operates through four regional offices. It’s the largest single payment ever for the organization. Missouri Legal Service’s IRS Form 990, an annual filing required for nonprofits to maintain tax-exempt status, showed total revenue at $1.7 million in 2020.

Clients must be living at or below 125% of the federal poverty level to qualify for services. Missouri Legal Services also has programs for individuals above the income guidelines.

Sources for state funding are:

  • a $30 annual enrollment fee paid by attorneys licensed in Missouri;
  • fees paid for filing cases in the Missouri Supreme Court, the state court of appeals, circuit courts and associate divisions, excluding small claims cases;
  • matching federal Medicaid funds;
  • specified portions of any punitive damages awarded in any tort case.

This year’s windfall comes from punitive damages awarded to the state’s Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund from a Johnson & Johnson talcum powder lawsuit. In St. Louis Circuit Court, plaintiffs alleged prolonged use of talcum powder caused ovarian cancer in some women. At first, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $4.4 billion in punitive damages but it was reduced to $2 billion after an appeal.

“This action by our constitutional partners in the legislative and executive branches to appropriate these funds to the judicial branch represents Missouri government working at its very best,” Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson said in a statement.

Wichmer said the amount might sound overwhelming to some, but it will make up for declines in federal funding dating back to the 1980s. Currently, only 20 to 25% of those who apply for assistance receive help.

Wichmer said the additional money might allow him to add another office in the northeast portion of his territory covering southern Missouri.

“We’re trying to cover it with remote attorneys,” Wichmer said. “It’s really difficult to serve people in that way.”

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