J&J has had a rough year. In 2018, a Los Angeles jury awarded $21.7 million to a woman who blamed her cancer on asbestos contaminated powder. J&J also lost a motion to overturn a jury verdict that awarded more than $4 billion to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on the company's products. The company faces more than 13,000 upcoming talcum powder lawsuits.
But the new frontier for talcum powder lawsuits may go far beyond J&J. Congressional investigations are now reaching into the heart of the health and beauty industry to discover how talc products are being marketed to a whole new generation of young girls. Cradle to grave, are young women the vulnerable demographic group where dangerous talc consumption habits begin?
What price freshness?
Ms. Leavitt first came into contact with J&J Baby Powder as an infant and used J&J talc products for a long time during the 1960s and 1970s. Talcum powder products were widely promoted as a way to combat diaper rash in infants and body order in adults. Talc is still used in health and beauty products, including the lipstick and eyeshadow brands that Claire’s and Justice specifically market to teenage and tween girls.
In 2016 Ms. Leavitt experienced escalating back pain, and a chest X-ray revealed a malignant mass above her diaphragm. She was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017. Now quite ill, she is not expected to survive longer than twenty-eight months.
Cancer link was no secret
Mesothelioma has been tied to asbestos exposure. Naturally occurring asbestos is often found in underground talc deposits, leading to the possibility of cross-contamination, according to geologists. But since mesothelioma has a very long latency period, talcum powder lawsuit plaintiffs have been challenged to demonstrate that the products they used were contaminated or that J&J knew of a reasonable risk that they were.
Recent investigative reporting has, however, managed to unearth internal J&J documents from more than 40 years ago that appear to demonstrate that J&J knew of the risk and failed to either warn consumers or re-formulate the products.
The jury ordered J&J to pay $29 million in damages for Ms. Leavitt’s injuries after finding that the company’s handling of the asbestos-laced baby powder was a substantial contributing factor in her cancer’s development. The panel also cited J&J for failing to adequately warn about the powder’s potential risks. J&J vows to fight on, claiming that there were judicial errors on procedure and evidence that should have resulted in a mistrial.
Turning tide of talcum powder lawsuits
J&J has consistently denied that its products are contaminated with asbestos, citing the possibility of asbestos exposure at work or though building materials in homes or offices. The company, however, still faces more than 13,000 lawsuits claiming its baby powder line caused mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. That is an increase from more than 11,000 last year.
The verdict is J&J’s seventh trial loss over claims that it hid the health risks of talc products for decades. It is the first defeat since a Missouri jury ordered the company to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on the product. There are more than two dozen talcum powder trials scheduled throughout the country in 2019.
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill
The Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission have subpoenaed corporate documents. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has also requested information from J&J that goes back to 1966.
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“This is a new Congress. We not only look different, but we serve differently and we act differently. Most of us have this sense of urgency that I think has been lacking... And yes, I think it matters that a lot of us are women, and are women of color, and are at the front lines.”
So, what happens next? Only time will tell. Except for the fact that they are very sick, the litigation situation for talcum powder lawsuit plaintiffs has only gotten better. Once the public has turned its attention to cosmetics, however, the baby powder lawsuits may prove to have been only the tip of the iceberg.