4800 Women Sue over Alleged Baby Powder Cancer Risks

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 11, 2017

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Baby Powder and Stethoscope Thousands of women are suing Johnson & Johnson, claiming that its baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.

Specifically, the plaintiffs claim that the talcum particles in the powder caused their cancer.

Talcum powder contains talc, which has particles of magnesium, oxygen, and silicon that absorb moisture. Asbestos sometimes appears in natural talc but was removed from talc used for consumer purposes in the 1970s.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits say that the when talcum powder is used in the genital area it can be absorbed by the female reproductive system and cause inflammation in the  ovaries.

The Weight of the Evidence

However, the National Cancer Institute says that “the weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.”

The American Cancer Society says that studies on whether talcum powder use and cancer are linked

have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase … For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to be very small.

Many of the plaintiffs in the Johnson & Johnson cases are very ill. In addition to seeking  money damages, they’re also asking Johnson & Johnson to add a warning to its baby powder labels or stop selling talcum-based powder and switch to cornstarch instead.

As the New York Times notes, the cases are not being brought as a class action but have been filed on behalf of individual plaintiffs.

Class action lawsuits are common when consumer products or environmental conditions (such as those depicted in the movies Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action) are alleged to have caused widespread consumer injuries.

However, it can be difficult for a case to be certified as a class action given the different ways some products can be sold and used and when different types of injuries result from the products’ use.

Also, in a class action all plaintiffs succeed or fail together, at least to an extent.

With individual lawsuits, each win by one plaintiff can make it easier for other plaintiffs to settle their cases without the need to go to trial.

Multidistrict Litigation

900 of the Johnson & Johnson talcum powder lawsuits have been consolidated into what’s known as “multidistrict litigation” (MDL) and transferred to the federal district court in New Jersey, where Johnson & Johnson is based.

MDLs generally save time and money because only one set of expensive expert witnesses needs to testify for each side.

Johnson & Johnson has lost six of the seven cases decided so far. It has appealed the verdicts against it.

The damages paid out by Johnson & Johnson are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Times.

Punitive Damages

A jury in Los Angeles awarded one 63-year-old woman $417 million, including $347 million  in punitive damages.

According to the Washington Post, the woman used the powder  for decades, starting at age 11.

Punitive damages are intended to punish especially wrongful or harmful conduct in tort cases, and are awarded in only 5% of trials.

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