On Monday, a Los Angeles jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 63-year-old Eva Echeverria, a former medical receptionist dying of ovarian cancer after using the company’s Baby Powder product for decades. To date, it’s the largest amount the company has been required to pay to an individual over ties between talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
Evidence in the case included internal company documents, which, according to Echeverria’s lawyer, Mark Robinson, “showed the jury that Johnson & Johnson knew about the risks of talc and ovarian cancer.”
Research linking talc to ovarian and cervical tumors has been produced since the 70s—Johnson & Johnson published its first study that suggested an “association” between talc and the disease in 1982. Dr. Daniel Cramer, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told NPR, “Overall, women may increase their risk [of ovarian cancer] in general by about 33 percent by using talc in their hygiene.”
Nonetheless, Johnson & Johnson does not issue warning labels on its baby powder products, nor does federal law require it to do so. A company spokesperson told NPR on Tuesday, “We are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder. In April, the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query Editorial Board wrote, ‘the weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.’ We are preparing for additional trials in the US, and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.”
Though most studies of whether talc is carcinogens are suggestive and have been inconsistent (the International Agency for Research on Cancer has, however, classified talcum powder as a possible carcinogen since 2006), it’s not as if the jury’s still out on the matter. Some women with ovarian cancer who have brought lawsuits against the company have had their cases thrown out (thousands have sued, only a few have gone to trial), but Johnson & Johnson had also spent hundreds of millions on pay-outs before Echeverria’s winning verdict on Monday. Verdicts in Missouri have forced the company to pay more than $300 million in damages, with the largest of those pay-outs, $110 million, awarded to a woman in May.
The New York Times reports that Robinson spoke on behalf Echeverria, who was too sick to testify, “She told me, ‘I’m not doing this for myself.’ She knows she’s going to die. She’s doing this for other women. She wants to do something good before she leaves.”