J&J Ordered to Pay $72M to Ovarian Cancer Victim’s Family

February 25, 2016 | Health Care, Law & Public Safety
A jury found Johnson and Johnson knew of talcum powder's risks but failed to warn customers.

By Briana Vannozzi

For years Johnson and Johnson marketed one if its oldest and best selling products toward women. Now roughly 1,200 of those customers have filed individual lawsuits contending the company hid a link between the talcum powder and ovarian cancer. At least 200 plaintiffs are right here in New Jersey, where the company is headquartered.

“The women tend to use the talcum powder on a daily basis for feminine hygiene. The talcum fibers work their way up the fallopian tubes into the ovaries and then after a very, very long latency period it causes inflammation and the development of ovarian cancer,” said attorney Jim Onder.

That’s the argument Onder used to win his client’s case in Missouri. A jury ordered J&J to pay $72 million in actual and punitive damages to the family of Onder’s client who died of ovarian cancer before the trial began. The plaintiff claimed the pharmaceutical company knew of talc’s risks but failed to warn customers.

“What the internal documents revealed is that J&J attempted to re-engineer the science. They went out and hired what the internal documents referred to as ‘the club’,  a club of doctors who traveled from investigation to investigation testifying that nothing causes ovarian cancer,” Onder said.

“The data is very conflicted. There have been a variety of retrospective studies that have been done over the years with varying results with some showing a small increased risk for ovarian cancer, others showing absolutely no association. It was thought that some of this was possibly related to contamination of talc with asbestos in the past,” said Dr. David Warshal, gynecological oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in Camden.

Dr. Warshal says about one in 70 women in the U.S. will develop ovarian cancer, but finding the direct cause is almost impossible.

“I think the risk is very low and that people at this point if they want to exercise some caution in the use of talc that’s fine, but otherwise I don’t think they have to change their general practice,” he said.

“Well a jury verdict isn’t a precedent. So a jury in New Jersey doesn’t have to do the same thing. What this is, it gives guidance to the lawyers and to the court. They don’t want to try 130 cases. They want to select a small number of representative cases to help them evaluate their case and think about settlement,” said Rutgers Law School Professor Jay Feinman.

In a statement, Johnson and Johnson spokesperson Carol Goodrich said, “We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers, and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial. We sympathize with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence.”

There are five more cases set for trial this year, in both Missouri and New Jersey. The plaintiffs attorneys believe it’s unlikely Johnson and Johnson will concede to warning labels on products, or public acknowledgement of a risk, unless more suits against them are won.