A Los Angeles jury awarded a woman a $417 million verdict yesterday. The jury found that Johnson & Johnson failed to adequately warn users of the cancer risks of the talc in its baby powder.
The jury’s 9-3 vote to hold J&J liable for not warning Eva Echeverria about cancer risks is a huge blow to the company, which is facing thousands of such claims across the country. The verdict consists of $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages, according to Reuters.
No clear link connects talcum powder to ovarian cancer. Some case-control studies, based on asking women who have ovarian cancer about their history, have found a slightly increased risk. But as the American Cancer Society notes, those kinds of studies can be biased because they rely on a person’s memory of talc use years after the fact.
Two prospective cohort studies, which don’t suffer from that type of hindsight bias, found no increased risk.
It is plausible, scientists say, that talcum powder applied to the genitals could travel through the vagina and into the ovaries, causing inflammation. Since inflammation increases the risk of cancer, it’s possible that talc causes cancer. But, again, the two most rigorous studies didn’t find any link.
Harvard University epidemiologist Daniel Cramer has published several studies, beginning in 1982, that found a link between talc exposure and increased ovarian cancer. Cramer worked as a paid consultant for the plaintiff’s lawyers in a St. Louis case that resulted in a $72 million verdict against J&J.
Talc, a clay mineral found around the world, is often used in powder form as a moisture-absorbing product and sold as talcum powder. “Baby powder” is a marketing term for cosmetic products that can be made from corn starch, talc, and other powders. Earlier versions of talcum powder sometimes contained asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent. But asbestos hasn’t been present in talcum powder in the US since the 1970s.
The Echeverria case was the first California talc case to go to trial, and the jury’s massive figure will set a new standard for the many talc cases to come. Hundreds more are in earlier stages of litigation in California alone.
The 63-year-old woman used J&J’s products for decades before she developed terminal ovarian cancer. Echeverria’s lawyers said that J&J encouraged women to use the product, despite knowing about studies linking talc and ovarian cancer.
The case was the first state trial outside of Missouri, Bloomberg reported. J&J has faced five Missouri trials over the last two years and lost four of them. The company has been hit with verdicts as high as $110 million.
“J&J needs to see they not only have verdicts against them in St. Louis; they now also have them in Los Angeles,” Mark Robinson, Echeverria’s lawyer, told Bloomberg. “There’s a problem all over the country with women using talcum powder on a daily basis for 10, 20, 30, 40 years.”
J&J has said they will appeal the case.
“We are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder,” a J&J spokesperson told Bloomberg. “We are preparing for additional trials in the US, and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.”
Bloomberg, which tallies large verdicts and settlements, says that yesterday’s jury verdict was the third-largest of 2017. The largest (for $500 million) was ZeniMax’s February win against Facebook over its virtual reality headset.