Judge overturns a $417 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson in talcum powder case
A woman claimed that regular use of baby powder caused her ovarian cancer
Thousands of similar cases are pending in courts across the country
Judges in two separate cases have ruled in favor of pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, overturning large financial judgments awarded to plaintiffs who believe the company’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower powder products caused their ovarian cancer. One award was to a California woman for $417 million, and another was to an Alabama woman for $72 million.
In the California case, which was decided by a jury in August, Eva Echeverria testified that she had been using talcum powder as a regular part of her feminine hygiene routine for more than 50 years, since she was 11. She developed ovarian cancer and stopped using the powder in 2016, after she read a news story about another woman who used it and had ovarian cancer.
Echeverria was granted an expedited trial as her medical situation was grave, and she has since died. The jury awarded her $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages, the largest verdict to date in the cases that have been heard against the company on these products.
On Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maren Nelson reversed the jury’s ruling and granted Johnson & Johnson’s motions for a new trial. The judge said there was an “insufficiency of the evidence as to the causation as to both defendants” and ruled that there was error in law occurring at trial and misconduct of the jury, which led to excessive damages.
The reversal was a setback for women and their families who have filed cases arguing that Johnson & Johnson has not adequately warned its costumers about the potential risks of using talc-based powders.
The science on talc and its relation to ovarian cancer has produced a mix of results over the years. The possible link may have first surfaced in a 1971 study that mentioned a relationship after the scientist found talc particles in ovarian tumors.
Since then, there has been what the court describes as “an ongoing debate in the scientific and medical community” as to whether talc usage may cause ovarian cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies the genital use of talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list talc as an ovarian cancer risk.
Some studies have seen a modest risk. The US National Toxicology Program, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has not fully reviewed talc as a possible carcinogen, according to the American Cancer Society, which says it isn’t clear whether the products increase a person’s cancer risk.
Some talc-based powders carry a warning label that mentions the possible risk of ovarian cancer after frequent application in the female genital area. Several talc-based powders, including J&J’s products, do not.
“We are pleased with Judge Maren Nelson’s ruling. Ovarian cancer is a devastating disease – but it is not caused by the cosmetic-grade talc we have used in Johnson’s Baby Powder for decades,” said Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson Consumer, in a statement after Friday’s reversal of the Echeverria case. “The science is clear and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder as we prepare for additional trials in the U.S.”
Mark Robinson Jr., one of Echeverria’s lawyers, said they will file an appeal immediately. “We disagree with the court’s decision,” he said. “A jury of Ms. Echeverria’s peers found the Johnson and Johnson defendants liable. We will ask the appellate court to uphold this jury’s verdict. We will continue to fight on behalf of all women who have been impacted by this dangerous product.”
At least 4,800 separate cases are pending against the company in courtrooms across the country. Several are based in California; Echeverria’s was the first to be brought to trial there.
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There were four verdicts against the company in Missouri, which ended in a total of $307 million in damages. Johnson & Johnson has been arguing that there are jurisdictional issues in those cases, as the plaintiffs lived out of state.
On Tuesday, a Missouri appellate court reversed a $72 million verdict handed down in February 2016. That case involved another lifelong talc user who had lived in Alabama and died four months before the trial. The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled that the case shouldn’t have been tried in St. Louis, as plaintiff Jacqueline Fox claims did not “arise out of J&J’s activities in Missouri.” The family is considering an appeal.
Another Missouri case was scheduled to start October 16, but the state’s Supreme Court issued a temporary stay. The circuit court will have to prove that it is the right jurisdiction to hear the case.