Jury section of courtroom with a talcum powder image next to it

First Talcum Powder Trial Begins in California

The first talcum powder trial in California is underway in Los Angeles, one of more than 300 ovarian cancer cases filed against defendant Johnson & Johnson that have been consolidated in the Superior Court of Los Angeles (Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Cases, number JCCP4872).

The attorney for plaintiff Eva Echeverria delivered his opening statement on Wednesday. On Thursday, jurors heard testimony from a toxicology and pharmacology expert who testified that regular use of talc for a long period of time is toxic.

Ms. Echeverria was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. She is 63 years old and faces a grim prognosis. Earlier this year, her attorneys asked the court to set an early trial date, based on declarations submitted by two doctors who estimated she had only about six months to live due to ovarian cancer. Echeverria was one of seven women who filed suit against defendant Johnson & Johnson in the Los Angeles Superior Court one year ago. All had used Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products (Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and Shower to Shower) for decades before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Johnson & Johnson Allegedly Concealed Talc Cancer Risks

In his opening argument, attorney Allen R. Smith said that Johnson & Johnson concealed the ovarian cancer risk associated with talcum powder in order to protect its “safe and gentle corporate image.” Johnson and Johnson have long been known as “the baby company” and its website advertises the company’s “130 years of caring.” That image, said Smith, was more important to the company than the safety of its customers.

Smith told the jurors that peer-reviewed scientific studies, carried out over several decades, had demonstrated that talcum powder use on the genital area accounted for approximately ten percent of all ovarian cancer cases. Moreover, internal company communications, said Smith, would prove that Johnson & Johnson knew that talc use increased the risk of ovarian cancer, but the company kept silent and instead lobbied federal regulators to keep mention of the risk of baby powder product labels.

Many of these charges are presented in greater detail in the original lawsuit filed by the seven women last year. That complaint refers to a 1982 study conducted by Dr. Daniel Cramer, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and several other doctors associated with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School. (Note: Epidemiologists study public health and try to identify causes and risk factors associated with various diseases. The word “epidemiology” comes from a Greek word, epidemios, meaning “epidemic.”)

Dr. Cramer’s study was the first to investigate the talcum powder ovarian cancer link. The researchers found that genital use of talcum powder was tied to a ninety-two percent increased risk of ovarian cancer.

According to the lawsuit, shortly after the publication of his study, Dr. Cramer was visited by a doctor representing Johnson & Johnson. He advised the doctor that talcum powder products should carry a warning of the increased ovarian cancer risk.

Johnson & Johnson did just the opposite. Responding to a 1993 report by the United States National Toxicology Program, which also found talc to be a carcinogen, Johnson & Johnson and allied companies founded the Talc Interested Party Task Force (TIPTF). Its purpose, the plaintiffs allege, was to defend talc use and prevent government regulation. Towards that end, say the plaintiffs, the TIPTF made efforts to distort the scientific record, influence regulatory agencies, and confuse the public.

 “All of these activities have been well-coordinated and planned by these companies and organizations [Johnson & Johnson and allied companies] over the past four (4) years in an effort to prevent regulation of talc and to create confusion to the consuming public about the true hazards of talc relative to ovarian cancer.” – Eva Echeverria et al. v. Johnson & Johnson et al., case number BC628228, Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles, July 25, 2016.

Experts Testify in California Talcum Powder Trial

On Thursday, toxicology expert Laura Plunkett took the stand (despite Johnson & Johnson’s unsuccessful effort to bar her from testifying). Dr. Plunkett holds the prestigious title of Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology (DABT). She said that the key to talcum powder’s carcinogenic effect is regular use over a long period of time. Talcum powder “migrates” from the genital area to the ovaries and daily use can lead to a build-up of talc in ovarian tissues. This, she explained, leads to chronic inflammation and, ultimately, cancer.

Ms. Echeverria, as well as three other plaintiffs, began using talcum powder on a daily basis in the 1950s. (The other three began in 1980, 1985 and 1992, also, as alleged in the lawsuit, on a daily basis.) Two recent studies have found that ovarian risk may increase with the number of years of baby powder use. Scientists refer to this as a “dose-response” relationship. A May 2016 study of over 2,000 cases of ovarian cancer, published in the journal Epidemiology, and an October 2016 study of 584 African American women with ovarian cancer, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, both reported dose-response relationships related to increasing years of daily talcum powder use. A dose-response finding is considered to be evidence of a cause-effect relationship.

The St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Trials

Plaintiffs in four of the previous talcum powder trials conducted in St. Louis, were awarded significant compensatory and punitive damages, with verdicts against Johnson & Johnson of $55 million, $70 million, $72 million, and $110 million. More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed by women who allege that they developed ovarian cancer as a result of long-term use of talcum powder. Due to state laws that allow out-of-state plaintiffs to file in Missouri, St. Louis has been the center of the explosion of talcum powder ovarian cancer lawsuits.

The legal playing field in Missouri and other states changed last month as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California) that will severely limit the ability of states to assert jurisdiction over nonresidents’ claims. Johnson & Johnson is already engaged in a legal battle to have 1,365 talcum cancer cases in Missouri dismissed based on the Supreme Court ruling.

What this Means for Other Talcum Powder Lawsuits

The Supreme Court ruling should not affect the California talcum powder trial or any other lawsuits which have been filed in California by California residents. The plaintiffs will get their day in court, and quite apart from all the legal issues to be decided, they will probably ask a very simple question: ‘Couldn’t you at least have warned us?’ It’s not like baby powder is a drug, where there are significant health risks and rewards involved in choosing to take it or not. The reward here: drier skin, fewer rashes. The risk: death. Seems like a simple word of caution should have been a no-brainer for the company with 130 years of caring.

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