March 17, 2016, Trial News | The American Association For Justice Archive

March 17, 2016, Trial News

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Jury finds for plaintiff in first Johnson & Johnson talc powder lawsuit

Diane M. Zhang

photo of talc bottle and hand with white talc on it

In the first verdict out of more than one thousand lawsuits alleging a link between Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based powders and an increased risk of ovarian cancer, a St. Louis jury has awarded the family of Jacqueline Fox $72 million, including $62 million in punitive damages.

In the first verdict out of more than one thousand lawsuits alleging a link between Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) talc-based powders and an increased risk of ovarian cancer, a St. Louis jury has awarded the family of Jacqueline Fox $72 million, including $62 million in punitive damages. (Hogans v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 1422-CC09012 (Mo. Cir. Ct. June 23, 2014).)

Fox, who lived in Birmingham, Ala., used J&J products containing talcum powder daily for feminine hygiene—including the company’s trademark baby powder and its Shower to Shower body powder—for nearly four decades. After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2013, she died before her case came to trial in October 2015. She was one of 60 women who sued J&J in Missouri state court, and her case is one of about 1,200 currently pending nationwide. 

The lawsuits allege that J&J—despite decades of knowledge—failed to warn consumers that its talc-based products could increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Talcum powder contains talc, a naturally occurring mineral that absorbs moisture and reduces friction. It is a crucial component of J&J’s trademark baby powder, which the company has long marketed as a symbol of freshness and cleanliness, telling consumers that it absorbs excess moisture, keeps skin dry and comfortable, masks odors, and is clinically proven to be gentle and mild. Similarly, the company markets its “Shower to Shower” powder as safe and effective, encouraging not only daily use—one of its taglines is “a sprinkle a day helps keeps odor away”—but specifically encouraging women to use it on their genitals with advertisements such as, “Your body perspires in more places than just under your arms.”

However, for decades the company was aware of studies that showed women who used the product as advertised—on their genitals, underwear, or sanitary napkins—were at an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Since 1971, more than 20 studies have shown a link between perineal talc powder use and ovarian cancer. A 1982 study, for example, concluded that women who reported genital talc use had a 92 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer, leading the doctor who conducted the study to advise J&J to place a warning on its talc powder products. In 1993, the United States National Toxicology Program found talc to be a carcinogen. After further evidence of talc’s dangers continued to mount over the next decade, the World Health Organization classified talc-based body powder as a “Group 2B human carcinogen,” the condom industry ceased the practice of dusting condoms with talc, and the Canadian government classified talc in the same category as asbestos.

Attorney Danielle Mason of Montgomery, Ala., who represented the plaintiff, said they were able to show the presence of talc in Fox’s ovaries. In Fox, as in many other women who used talc powder for feminine hygiene, the talc particles entered the reproductive tract and traveled through the cervix into the uterus, ultimately reaching the ovaries. “We showed the presence of talc in the ovary using scanning electron microscopy to identify foreign particulates in the tissue,” Mason explained. “Our experts testified that talc is capable of migrating to the upper genital tract via the fallopian tubes or the pelvic lymphatic system, and over the course of time, it creates a foreign body inflammatory response that ultimately leads to the development of ovarian cancer.” Medical studies indicate that many ovarian tumors are embedded with talc particles.

Despite these studies, J&J has maintained that its products are safe. On Feb. 24, the company released a statement on its website: “The safety of talc is based on a long history of safe use and more than 30 years of research by independent researchers, scientific review boards and global authorities. [S]ince the early 1990s, many research papers and epidemiology studies have evaluated talc and perineal use and these studies have found talc to be safe.”

While J&J has indicated that it is prepared to mount a vigorous defense against future lawsuits, Mason believes that the documents detailing the company’s knowledge of the risk will be difficult to overcome. In addition to the studies showing a link between ovarian cancer and perineal talc use, numerous documents also demonstrate that J&J was aware of the risks, yet did nothing to warn consumers or modify either its product or its advertising. “There are literally hundreds of documents that span the course of decades that show an ongoing campaign to conceal the truth about talc,” Mason said. “These documents showed awareness of the medical literature, admitted that the public was largely unaware of the association, and admitted that cornstarch was a feasible alternative.”

Mason also stressed the verdict’s significance, not only for Fox and her family but for potential future plaintiffs. “What we are seeing is an influx of new potential cases from women who are just now learning of the dangers of using talc powder in the genital area. In that regard, we are proud of the publicity this verdict has received because we believe it will help save lives,” she said.