Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court shot down Johnson & Johnson’s bid to appeal a $2.1 billion jury verdict in favor of women who blamed their ovarian cancer on the company’s baby powder. In 2018, a St. Louis jury found that J&J’s talc-based powder products were the leading cause of ovarian cancer for 20 women and awarded $4.7 billion in damages. The landmark award was later reduced to $2.1 billion on appeal by the company.
In a statement, J&J officials said they plan to appeal last week’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Judge erred in allowing the women’s claims to be joined together for trial in state court as some of the plaintiffs were residents of states other than Missouri.
Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, J&J stubbornly refuses to admit their talc-powder products contain asbestos and carry risk of cancer. In a statement, company spokeswoman Kim Montagnino said “Johnson & Johnson will continue to vigorously defend the safety of the product and the unfounded allegations made against the company.” In the St. Louis trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys cited internal J&J documents from the early 1970’s revealing test results that found traces of asbestos in the company’s talc products.
Johnson’s plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is a long-shot by most estimates. The high court reviews fewer than 1% of the cases appealed to it annually. Famed trial lawyer Mark Lanier who represented the group of 20 injured women had this to say, “the trial jury sent a loud message alerting the world to the dangers of talc. Now the message has been confirmed through each level of the state’s appellate system.”
Background on Talc Powder and Ovarian Cancer
Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder trouble began after a 2018 Reuters investigation uncovered that J&J knew for decades that its talc-based products contain asbestos but failed to warn regulators and the public about the risk of cancer. The Reuters article prompted a stock selloff that erased $40 billion from J&J’s market value in one day and created a public relations crisis as the company faced widespread questions about the possible health effects of its flagship baby powder products.
In May of 2020 Johnson & Johnson decided to remove its talc-based baby powder from shelves in the U.S. and Canada claiming lawsuits and “unfounded” bad publicity has reduced customer demand for the products. Critics point to the move as additional evidence the company has known for decades that talc powder laced with asbestos carries the risk of cancer.
J&J is also the target of a federal criminal investigation into how forthright the company has been about talc powder safety. Forty-one states and the U.S. Congress are looking into the company’s lack of disclosure of health risks related to talc powder products. U.S. Representative Raja Kishnamoorthi, who led the Congressional inquiry described J&J’s decision to stop selling talc baby powder as “a major victory for public health.” Rep. Krishnamoorthi stated “my subcommittee’s 14-month investigation revealed that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its products contain asbestos.” A finding the company continues to deny.
Johnson & Johnson maintains its decision to discontinue talc-based baby powder in North America was not connected to the congressional investigation or any other claims related to asbestos. In an earlier statement, J&J said, “demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.”
Sold continuously since 1894, baby powder accounted for only 0.5% of J&J’s U.S. consumer health business prior to the decision to halt sales. An internal marketing presentation from 1999 refers to the baby powder division as J&J’s “#1 Asset,” grounded in “deep personal trust” and a “sacred cow” for the company.
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