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Rick Shapiro
| Shapiro, Appleton & Washburn

On August 21, 2017, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded a 63-year-old California woman $417 million in compensatory and punitive damages in her lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The plaintiff is currently bedridden and near death from ovarian cancer that she blames on using the company’s talcum powder products for more than 50 years. In the process of arriving at its verdict, the jury determined that a link exists between using talc-containing feminine hygiene products and developing cancers of the reproductive system.

That decision regarding cancer risks justified the further determination that Johnson & Johnson neglected its duty to warn women about life-threatening dangers from long-term application of talcum powder to promote dryness and reduce certain odors. All product manufacturers have a legal duty to alert customers to risks. Evidence submitted by the plaintiff in Echeverria et al v. Johnson & Johnson (Los Angeles Superior Court, No. BC628228) showed that reports of increased ovarian cancer among women who used talcum powder began appearing in medical journals in the early 1980s.

Echeverria was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. She had at least one softball-sized tumor removed, but relapsed. She continued using Johnson & Johnson talcum powders until 2016, telling jurors in a videotaped statement that she would have stopped much sooner had the company put cancer warnings on bottles of products like Shower to Shower and Baby Powder.

A Company Disputing or Disregarding the Science

Johnson & Johnson defended its choice to keep cancer warnings off its talc products by citing other research that failed to associate exposure to the mineral to high risks for cancer. This was not always true, however, because asbestos fibers mixed with talc in many hygiene and cosmetic products marketed before 1980. The mines where talc is taken often also contain asbestos ores.

The company announced its intention to appeal the $417 million verdict immediately. It has lost several similar cases at the trial stage in Missouri state courts, and it currently faces a total of nearly $800 million in ovarian cancer awards. Since the websites of groups like the American Cancer Society still feature statements about the uncertainty of cancer risks from talcum powder, the company will continue to fight.

Here is what the ACS tells people:

Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.

Definitive studies are needed because no woman should be subjected to unacknowledged risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Among women in the United States, ovarian cancer is the tenth most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer death, after lung and bronchus, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about 3% of all cancers in women.”

A Dangerous and Defective Product Lawyer’s Perspective

If frequent use of talcum powder for feminine hygiene does anything to make developing ovarian cancer more likely, Johnson & Johnson should alert women of this. Doing less would constitute more than negligence. Withholding information about a potential fatal danger shows a total lack of concern for the well-being of customers.

As a Virginia-based attorney who has helped many people harmed by dangerous and defective products, I urge every company to act aggressively and consistently to protect consumers’ health. Adding a cancer warning to bottles of talcum powder might reduce sales, but are profits worth women’s lives?


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