In advocating on behalf of adding warnings to baby powder containing talc, Roberta B. Ness, RN, wrote in a June 3, 2016, Houston Chronicle editorial, "You can't avert a risk you don't know about,” This sums up the key issue in recent and pending product liability lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson. Plaintiffs in those case claim that the health care products manufacturer failed to publicly acknowledge and warn women about a link between using talcum powder for feminine hygiene and developing fatal forms of ovarian cancer.
Evidence for talc causing ovarian cancer emerged in the early 1980s. More recent case review studies have made it clearer that women who applied talcum powder to their genitals and other parts of their bodies suffered cancer at higher rates than did women who never used talc-containing products. The danger was particularly great for African American women, to whom Johnson & Johnson aggressive marketed talcum powder during the 1990s.
In the wake of $72 million jury award to the family of an Alabama woman who used J&J’s talc-containing products for decades before dying from ovarian cancer, individuals involved in the case have engaged in a war of words across various publications. The company is trying particularly hard to convince the general pubic of the safety of talcum powder because jurors who believe it failed to meet its legal duty to disclose and fully alert customers to risks will continue ruling against it in court.
Ness, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Alabama family’s case, alleged in her Houston Chronicle essay that “J&J and its supplier of talc, Imerys, years ago set up a task force to challenge the emerging scientific evidence and to prevent regulation of talc by way of corporate influence.” If borne out by evidence presented at trial, such actions could convince jury members that the leading seller of talc-containing women’s health products actively covered up risk information.
Responding to Ness, Johnson & Johnson’s Vice President of Research and Development Tara Glasgow implied that health care experts who assist plaintiffs during talc lawsuits have “hidden agendas.” She also leaned heavily on the distinction between “association” and “causation,” ignoring the reality that FDA and other regulators almost always ask companies to warn customers about associated risks.
As a longtime Virginia dangerous and defective product attorney, I recognize Johnson & Johnson’s legal strategy all too well. It is working to delegitimize its critics, playing language games and mischaracterizing its own actions and obligations. Asbestos producers and tobacco companies follow the same game plan.