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Possible MDL for Hair Relaxer Lawsuits Could Bring Justice to Women of Color Harmed by the Products

The number of women filing hair relaxer lawsuits continues to grow, prompting the filing of a motion to centralize claims brought through federal courts in multidistrict litigation (Case MDL No. 3060) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. On November 15, 2022, a group of plaintiffs filed the motion to transfer these cases to a single court in the interest of streamlining the judicial process and ensuring similar outcomes across individual lawsuits.

Plaintiffs in the chemical hair straightener and relaxer lawsuits allege that the products cause uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids, and endometriosis. Some of the products that have surfaced in these legal actions include Dark & Lovely, Olive Oil Relaxer, Motions, and Organic Root Stimulator.

Perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards that have been pushed in the U.S. since the days of slavery, cosmetics manufacturers allegedly have produced, packaged, marketed, and sold their defective hair relaxer products, specifically targeting young Black girls.

“Centralization of this litigation is super important to rectify yet another one of the many harms that Black and Brown communities face at disproportionate rates,” said Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR) Attorney Chelsie Green, who is part of the LPR legal team investigating chemical hair relaxer cases.

The Complaints in the chemical hair relaxer lawsuits further allege that cosmetic companies knew their products were harmful since 2015, but the companies failed to warn consumers of the health risks from regular, prolonged use of the products.

For Attorney LaRuby May, Of Counsel, Levin Papantonio Rafferty, the conduct of these companies sparks outrage and inspires her to work to hold them accountable for the damage they have done.

“When you think about how dangerous the chemicals in hair relaxers are to a woman’s body, it is easy to be angry regarding the actions of the manufacturers,” May said. “But when you consider how much money and effort these companies invested in marketing to our children, the only remaining response is to fight for justice and accountability.”

Phthalates and Other Harmful Chemicals in Hair Straighteners and Relaxers

Many hair relaxer products contain phthalates, an endocrine-disrupting chemical that interferes with the normal functioning of the body’s endocrine systems. This disruption alters hormonal production and degradation, which can cause cancers, altered immune function, endometriosis, altered nervous systems, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and a host of other medical problems.

In October 2022, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) published a study revealing that women who use chemical hair relaxers suffer a higher risk of developing uterine cancer than women who did not use these types of products. The study results showed that women who used relaxers more than four times in the previous year were twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than their study counterparts.

What Happens Next With These Hair Relaxer Cases?

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) considers this type of centralization when common questions of fact and law exist across a large number of complaints. If the JPML were to grant the plaintiffs’ motion, forming a federal hair relaxer MDL, plaintiffs would retain the lawyers for their individual cases, but a group of attorneys would be appointed to coordinate pretrial proceedings, including discovery.

The process would ultimately lead to the judge selecting a few cases that would proceed to “test run” (bellwether) trials. The outcomes of the bellwether trials could serve as catalysts for global settlement decisions. In the absence of a settlement agreement, the judge would transfer cases back to their original courts where they would resume their course as individual lawsuits.