Johnson & Johnson Loses Big in Latest Talcum Powder Ovarian Cancer Verdict: Jury Awards $415 Million

This week, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $415 million to a California woman who alleged that her ovarian cancer was caused by the company’s talc-containing Baby Powder. Eva Echeverria, now hospitalized and in the final stages of her illness, said she used the product daily for most of her life. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007.

This verdict is the fourth time a jury has found the New Jersey-based company liable in talc litigation. Once considered the “Most Trusted Brand in America,” Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries have been targeted by lawsuits over a number of products in recent years.

In a recent filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission, J&J acknowledged that it was currently facing approximately 4,800 pending lawsuits over its talc-containing products. The first three trials ended in verdicts for the plaintiffs. This recent verdict is by far the largest amount awarded to a single plaintiff to date in talc-related litigation.

Echeverria testified that she began using Baby Powder at age 11. She said that had there been a warning label on the product, she would have stopped using it decades ago.

Evidence presented at the trial demonstrated that J&J indeed failed in its duty to warn consumers of the health risks associated with talc. The plaintiff’s lawyer cited a study from 1982 indicating that women who used talc on their genitals faced a 92% greater risk of contracting ovarian cancer. They further pointed to a 1999 publication from the National Cancer Institute, stating that “avoidance of talc in genital hygiene might reduce the occurrence of a highly lethal form of cancer by at least 10 percent.”

There is in fact a great deal of evidence linking talc with ovarian cancer going back over four decades. In 1971, four OB/GYNs reported the discovery of talc particles in over 75 percent of ovarian tumors they had examined.

There were also internal company documents showing the jury that “Johnson & Johnson knew about the risks of talc and ovarian cancer,” according to Echeverria’s lawyer, Mark Robinson. He added, “Johnson & Johnson had many warning bells over a 30-year period but failed to warn the women who were buying its product.” In fact, several years ago, the company offered a woman $1.3 million to “keep quiet” about the link between talc and ovarian cancer.

Over the course of the trial, lawyers for J&J argued that scientific evidence for the carcinogenicity of talc is “inconclusive.” They pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not found an association between talc and cancer, and pointed to a Harvard University study, published in February 2000, in which the researchers said “we did not observe an overall association between epithelial ovarian cancer and ever use of talc.” However, that study also noted that they “lacked information on the duration of talc use,” and that “perineal [genital] talc use may modestly increase the risk of invasive serous ovarian cancers.”

As it turns out, high-grade serous ovarian carcinoma is the most common form of the disease, according to the IARC World Cancer Report, published in 2014.

In the end, the jury awarded Echeverria $68 million in compensatory damages and $340 in punitive damages. Despite the present verdict as well as the three earlier judgments against them, Johnson & Johnson continues to insist that talc is safe when used as directed. A spokesperson for the company expressed sympathy for Echeverria, but said they will appeal the case.