In 2018, 22 women who alleged they developed ovarian cancer after years of daily use of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) talc baby powder were awarded $4.7 billion by a Missouri court. An appeals court later affirmed the verdict but the damage award was reduced to $2.1 billion, and two women were dropped.
After the decision was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court, J&J petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case. Pro-business interest groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, urged the nation’s high court to review the case and reverse the verdict.
But today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review J&J’s challenge, according to Forbes.com, meaning that the $2.1 billion verdict awarded to the 20 women stands.
In lower court rulings, J&J was accused of misrepresenting the safety of its talc-based products for decades. An investigation by Reuters revealed internal documents, which showed that J&J’s powder was sometimes tainted with cancer-causing asbestos and that J&J kept that information from regulators and the public.
Per Forbes.com, evidence during the trials demonstrated “particularly reprehensible conduct on the part of Defendants.”
The 20 women were represented by Kenneth Starr, who became a household name in 1998 , when he led the impeachment investigation over the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Per Forbes.com, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue a comment regarding its decision. However, two justices did not participate: Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh. The former owns stock in J&J while the latter worked for Starr. Kavanaugh’s father also headed the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association that fought efforts to add health warnings to products.
The 20 female plaintiffs is by far the most well-publicized talc powder cancer case. However, J&J still faces over 25,000 lawsuits. The company paid $100 million to pay 1,000 talc lawsuits last October. In late February, J&J disclosed in a regulatory filing that it was setting aside some $4 billion for litigation expenses, most of it devoted to talc lawsuits; today’s Supreme Court decision means that half of its litigation fund may go to just this one case.
Even though J&J pulled talc baby powder off North American shelves in May 2020, J&J has vigorously maintained that its talc products are safe. This despite the fact that in 2019, J&J recalled a lot (approximately 32,000 bottles) of talcum powder because a trace amount of asbestos was detected. J&J has also been accused of marketing its talc-based products to minority groups at a higher rate than towards non-minority women.
No safe amount of asbestos exposure has been established; even trace exposure could potentially be carcinogenic with repeated use of talc-based products.
Talc and asbestos are both minerals that are located next to each other in quarries. Veins of asbestos often reach into talc rock. In a recent mesothelioma trial, an expert witness testified that asbestos in talc is unavoidable.