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Jury Returns $72 Million Verdict in Talcum-Powder Related Ovarian Cancer Death

Feb 25, 2016

On February 22, a St. Louis jury awarded $72 million to the family of an Alabama woman who died of ovarian cancer she claimed was caused by using Johnson & Johnson's baby powder and other products containing talcum.

Her civil suit was part of a broader claim in St. Louis Circuit Court involving nearly 60 people, the Associated Press (AP) reports. The woman had joined the litigation after her ovarian cancer diagnosis and her son plaintiff took over her claim her death in October 2015, about two years after the cancer diagnosis.

Marvin Salter of Jacksonville, Florida, said his mother, had used J&J talcum powder for decades. "It just became second nature, like brushing your teeth," he said, according to the AP. Plaintiffs in talc-related cases allege that J&J misrepresented and hid information about the dangers of using talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product. J&J was one of the founders of the "Talc Interested Party Task Force" (TIPTF), a group formed to defend talc use and prevent regulation. TIPTF disseminated self-funded research reports. Plaintiffs say the group released bogus information about the safety of talc and used political and economic persuasion on regulatory bodies.

The trial lasted three weeks and the verdict was delivered after about five hours of deliberations. The jury awarded $10 million in actual damages and $62 million in punitive damages, though Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal. Stanford University law professor Nora Freeman Engstrom (who was not involved in the case) told the AP that it is likely that the $72 million award will be reduced during the appeal process.

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral that is widely used in cosmetics and personal care products, including baby powder and boy powders. Talc absorbs moisture, prevents caking and improves the product's feel. Several studies have confirmed that talc applied the genital area may travel through the vagina and into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, causing inflammation that may lead to the development of cancer. Use of talc in cosmetics and personal care products remains unregulated in the United States.

Health and consumer groups have targeted New Jersey-based J&J over possibly harmful ingredients in products including No More Tears baby shampoo. In May 2009, the AP reports, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics began pushing Johnson & Johnson to eliminate questionable ingredients from its baby and adult personal care products. After three years of petitions, negative publicity and a boycott threat, the company agreed in 2012 to eliminate the ingredients 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, both considered probable human carcinogens, from all products by 2015. Among the evidence introduced at the Missouri trial, was a September 1997 internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant suggesting that "anybody who denies (the) risks" between "hygienic" talc use and ovarian cancer will be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer: "denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary," according to the AP.

Prof. Freeman Engstrom said this week’s verdict "doesn't bode well for Johnson & Johnson." "This case clearly was a bellwether, and clearly the jury has seen the evidence and found it compelling." Johnson & Johnson faces at least 1,200 spending talcum powder lawsuits and possibly thousands more, the professor said.

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