Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay US$72 million in talc cancer case

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the verdict. Photo / Getty Images
Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the verdict. Photo / Getty Images

Jacqueline Fox died last autumn, but her voice recently came alive in a St Louis courtroom.

In an audio deposition, the Birmingham, Alabama, native who died at 62 recounted 35 years of using Johnson & Johnson products containing talcum powder, from the pharmaceutical giant's trademark baby powder to its shower-to-shower body powder. Fox had applied them towards feminine hygiene, but believed they ultimately killed her.

More than three years ago, she was diagnosed with an ovarian cancer that proved fatal. Fox then joined more than 1200 women from across the country suing Johnson & Johnson for failing to warn consumers of the dangers associated with talc, the mineral used in baby powder.

On Monday, her case became the first in which compensation was awarded.

A Missouri jury has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay Fox's family US$72 million ($108 million) in actual and punitive damages. One of Fox's lead attorneys, Jim Onder, told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that $31 million will go to the Missouri Crime Victim Compensation Fund.

The suit's other defendant, talc producer Imerys Talc America, has not been faulted.

"We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial," Johnson & Johnson said. "We sympathise with the plaintiff's family but firmly believe the safety the cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence."

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the verdict. The award, which includes $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages - will likely be reduced in appellate courts, Stanford law professor Nora Freeman Engstrom told the Associated Press.

According to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, one male juror and nine female jurors voted in Fox's favour; two men voted against her.

One juror, 50-year-old Jerome Kendrick, told the Post-Dispatch that he was swayed by internal company memos presented at trial.

"They tried to cover up and influence the boards that regulate cosmetics," he said, adding: "They could have at least put a warning label on the box but they didn't. They did nothing."

One memo from a company medical consultant likened ignoring the risks associated with "hygenic" talc use and ovarian cancer to denying the link between smoking cigarettes and cancer - in other words, "'denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary,'" the Associated Press reported.

Another document noted that sales were declining as more people became aware of the health risks, and included strategies for making blacks and Hispanics the highest users of talcum powder, Onder said, as the Post-Dispatch reported.

Fox was African American.

The New Jersey-based company faces many more lawsuits related to talcum products it has made household names.

Marvin Salter, Fox's son, told the AP that using Johnson & Johnson "became second nature, like brushing your teeth".

But a routine act eventually became insidious, Fox's lawyers argued.

A pathologist found that Fox's ovaries were inflamed from talc, which then turned into cancer.

Studies have associated regular talc use with ovarian cancer for decades, but the American Cancer Society notes that there is no definitive research on whether asbestos-free talc - the kind widely used in consumer products - causes ovarian cancer:

"Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person's memory of talc use many years earlier."

- Washington Post

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