A California jury returned a $29.4 million verdict in a trial involving a woman who believes that her mesothelioma is tied to her regular use of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder.
Wednesday’s decision came after a lengthy trial that started in January.
The jury awarded $24.4 million to Teresa Leavitt and $5 million to her spouse, Dean McElroy. Leavitt developed mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissue that lines lungs and other organs.
The award is compensatory damages only, to repay the couple for their loss. The jury decided against awarding punitive damages, which are designed to punish the defendants – in this case Johnson & Johnson and the other companies involved in making the talcum powder – for reckless or negligent behavior. The jury found J&J responsible for 98% of the damages.
Nearly 14,000 cases are making their way through the legal system against Johnson & Johnson related to its talc products and people who feel that using them caused their cancer. Some lawyers, such as in this case, have argued that the talc is contaminated with asbestos and that Johnson & Johnson knew that its products were contaminated for decades. They have introduced internal company documents to that effect.
J&J says its products do not contain asbestos. Since the 1970s, talc used in all consumer products has been legally required to be asbestos-free.
There is a separate but related set of cases in which women believe that using talc in their genital areas has led to their ovarian cancer. In June, a Missouri jury awarded several women involved in these suits $4.69 billion. Those verdicts are on appeal, and some have been thrown out.
This California case that concluded on Wednesday was one of the first to go to jury after the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in December that said the company will cooperate with “government inquiries” and subpoenas to produce documents related to the matter from the Department of Justice, the SEC and Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy also took a closer look at the science that may link talc to cancer and explored the possibility of creating a law that would more closely regulate the cosmetic and personal products industry. Johnson & Johnson was not invited to testify at the hearing.
There are no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer to test their products for safety, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, although the FDA routinely tests products to monitor the market for public health risks.
Talc is a soft mineral that is often found with asbestos. It is used in cosmetics, powders and personal care products. It’s also widely used in paints and industrial materials.
The debate over a link between talcum powder and cancer has been growing in the scientific community. Some studies have found an increased cancer risk, but others do not. Most suggest that more research is needed.
Johnson & Johnson said it will appeal Wednesday’s decision. “We are disappointed with today’s verdict and will pursue an appeal because Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer,” spokeswoman Kimberly Montagnino said in a statement.
“There were serious procedural and evidentiary errors in the proceeding that required us to move for mistrial on eight different points during the proceeding. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have fundamentally failed to show that Johnson’s Baby Powder contains asbestos, and their own experts concede that they are not recognizing the accepted definition of asbestos and are ignoring crucial distinctions between minerals that are asbestos and minerals that are not. We respect the legal process and reiterate that jury verdicts are not medical, scientific or regulatory conclusions about a product.”
Montagnino emphasized that several cases have gone in favor of Johnson and Johnson and that there have been multiple mistrials.
“This track record shows that there are one set of facts in these cases, and that decades of tests by independent, non-litigation driven experts and institutions repeatedly confirm that Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer,” Montagnino said. “We believe these issues will warrant a reversal on appeal.”