Johnson & Johnson baby powder has been used for decades by millions of people. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for everyone. In recent years, some medical evidence suggests a link between talcum powders and ovarian cancer. A California jury has awarded a whopping $417 million to a woman who developed cancer after using Johnson’s baby powder for years.
The link between talcum and ovarian cancers has not been definitely proven or disproven. Nonetheless, the lawsuit contended that Johnson & Johnson buried evidence that supports that link. This verdict will be appealed and very possibly reduced. Yet it is a game-changer as many similar lawsuits are waiting in the wings.
Does talcum powder really cause cancer?
The jury is still out on this one, as the saying goes.
The plaintiffs presented evidence linking long-term use of baby powder and other talc products to ovarian cancer. They argued that manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson have known of the link for half a century. They convinced the jury to award punitive damages for continuing to sell a dangerous product and for failing to warn consumers of the possible health risks. They noted that Johnson & Johnson now markets an alternative powder made with corn starch.
Johnson & Johnson disputes the cancer link, and presented its own medical experts at trial. They noted that no federal agencies – including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – have named talcum as a carcinogen or restricted its use in consumer products.
The American Cancer Society says the research is mixed. Some studies suggest a slightly higher incidence of ovarian cancer, while other studies have found no cancer correlation. Two cases in New Jersey were dismissed because the court said the experts had not presented credible scientific evidence linking talc to cancers.
Was this a “runaway jury”?
Advocates of tort reform (limits on damages in lawsuits) point to these excess verdicts as get-rich schemes or a system out of whack. They say big verdicts in product liability lawsuits make a few people wealthy and drive up the costs of products for everyone else or drive companies out of business.
- First of all, this was not the first big jury award against Johnson & Johnson. Six previous talcum powder lawsuits in Missouri resulted in a $300 million in damages awarded at trial.
- Second, most of the money awarded by the California jury was for punitive damages, not for pain and suffering. Punitive damages are meant to punish companies that knowingly profit from dangerous products and to deter other companies from similar conduct. Without penalties in the millions or hundreds of millions, large corporations have less incentive to “do the right thing.”
- Lastly, giant awards like this are almost never paid out. They are usually reduced on appeal if not thrown out altogether. For instance, in the famous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, the jury’s $2.7 million verdict (including punitive damages) was reduced by a judge to $600,000 and the 79-year-old plaintiff eventually settled out of court for less than that.
What happens next? Does the company have to pay?
It is unlikely that Eva Echeverria will receive the whole $400 million. With appeals, it could be years before she sees any money. It’s possible that she will end up with a reduced award, an out-of-court settlement, or no compensation at all. Thousands of potential plaintiffs are lining up, in individual lawsuits and in class actions. If talcum powder indeed caused their cancers, they deserve to be compensated as well, but it’s not possible to give each of them $400 million. Both sides will be closely watching the next lawsuits and the appeals process to see where this goes.