California Johnson & Johnson Talc Cancer Risk Verdict

By now, most readers know that recently, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was ordered to pay $417 million to a woman from East Los Angeles who claimed that she developed terminal ovarian cancer from using J&J’s talc powder products. The verdict included $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages.

While this was the first such case to go to verdict against J&J in California — where hundreds of other similar cases are pending — this is not the first trial verdict nationally. To date, there have been five trials in Missouri, with plaintiffs prevailing in four of those cases and J&J winning one. And in New Jersey, the state court judge overseeing the centralized cases pending against J&J has dismissed several cases on the grounds that plaintiffs’ experts failed to reliably establish causation linking talc exposure to ovarian cancer.

As expected, J&J has announced that it intends to appeal the recent California decision because the science supports the safety of the J&J product. Although there are medical studies linking the use of talc in the genital region and ovarian cancer, the research findings are inconsistent. Plaintiffs generally rely on smaller retrospective cohort studies that have generally been questioned by the scientific community as inherently unreliable. In contrast, the larger prospective cohort studies have not found an association between talc and ovarian cancer. And the FDA and many health organizations do not recognize any causal connection.

It is clear that J&J’s science-based defense has worked in some cases but has not worked in others. While this litigation continues to unfold, it is important in the broader sense to look for lessons that can be drawn from these results and then applied, not only to that continued litigation, but to other similar or analogous claims.

Also, a common theme of the verdicts thus far against J&J has been a large punitive component. Again, given the backdrop of less-than-ironclad science, it is important to look for lessons in these punitive results as well.


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