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Plaintiffs seek inquiry on J&J’s destroyed data

TRENTON, N.J. — Lawyers and advocates for women alleging Johnson & Johnson products injured them urged the US Justice Department on Wednesday to investigate their contention the health care giant deliberately destroyed many documents critical to their lawsuits.

Corporate Action Network, a nonprofit group seeking to hold businesses accountable for their actions, said that it has written to Attorney General Eric Holder and asked the department to look into whether J&J, based in New Brunswick, N.J., and chief executive Alex Gorsky committed the crimes of obstructing justice and destroying records in a federal probe.

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‘‘Hundreds of thousands of women continue to suffer ongoing, severe harm,’’ from J&J’s pelvic mesh implants, network spokeswoman Levana Layendecker said during a call with reporters. ‘‘I hope Johnson & Johnson is held accountable for their failure to warn.’’

The implants are widely used to raise sagging pelvic organs, common in older women and those who’ve had children — and often the cause of embarrassing bladder leaks when they laugh, sneeze, or lift something heavy. More than 22,000 women suing J&J blame its implants for crippling pain, infections, and bleeding.

Last month, US District Court Judge Cheryl Eifert in southern West Virginia, who is handling most of the implant lawsuits, concluded J&J destroyed thousands of documents regarding development of its pelvic mesh implants but said there was no proof that was done intentionally. The documents would include reports on testing of the mesh implants on patients and could show whether participants suffered serious complications.

Jane Akre, founder of an online network for pelvic mesh implant ‘‘survivors,’’ said Johnson & Johnson was aware of possible harm and didn’t warn the public.

‘‘Evidence we’ve presented at trial showed they knew these implants would cause complications and they just didn’t care. Many women are now disabled and they can’t leave their beds, they’re in so much pain,’’ she said during the conference call.

‘‘Women have killed themselves because the pain eclipses childbirth pain, it’s that bad,’’ Akre said in an interview.

Matthew Johnson, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon unit, which makes the implants, said in a statement that the company ‘‘acted appropriately and responsibly in the research, development, and marketing of our pelvic mesh products,’’ which he said are considered a ‘‘gold standard’’ treatment.

Sagging pelvic organs were fixed with traditional surgery until the late 1990s, when J&J launched the first pelvic mesh implants, a twist on a similar product long used to repair hernias. The pelvic implants, which function like a sling attached to bones to lift fallen organs, were billed as more effective than stitching organs into place. Six other companies then launched rival products.

Women soon began complaining of complications so severe they could not work, needed strong painkillers around the clock and found intercourse unbearably painful. That’s because the mesh, similar to a window screen, over time can dig into the exterior tissue of the vagina or bladder, causing a sensation some have likened to having barbed wire twisting inside your body.

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