News organizations are besieged with invented holidays – think National Donut Day – dreamed up by marketing geniuses trying to market a corporation’s products. But September was National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and, by definition, that’s a topic far more important than any food item. For pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, this special designation for a month couldn’t come at a worse time.
That’s because reporters looking to write about ovarian cancer need venture no further than Los Angeles, where a jury’s recent $417 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson is the largest yet in a series of lawsuits by women claiming the company failed to warn them about cancer risks associated with J&J’s iconic Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products.
As we have reported, this was not the first multimillion-dollar award against J&J for women who have developed ovarian cancer after using the company’s talc-based products for feminine hygiene. But this case is different than the rest so far, and not solely because jurors made a point of harshly punishing J&J for its corporate behavior. This verdict is different because it’s now much harder for J&J to continue its “kill-the-messenger” approach to the thousands of talc-cancer lawsuits the company faces.
For more than a year, jurors in four trials in Missouri courts have told Johnson & Johnson what they think about the evidence that clearly shows women who use talc products have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. The multimillion-dollar verdicts there have been adding up. But until now, those trials had been concentrated in St. Louis where J&J responded with an aggressive public relations strategy to discredit the science linking talc and cancer while disparaging the citizens serving on these juries.
In tandem with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “PR machine,” J&J has suggested that these dying women were engaged in “forum shopping” and had filed their lawsuits in St. Louis solely because its juries are somehow overly friendly toward Plaintiffs. Earlier this year, the company trumpeted a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, known as Bristol-Myers Squibb, that drastically limits where injured individuals can bring lawsuits against businesses such as J&J.
Meanwhile, J&J disparaged the reputations of some of the world’s leading scientists for their decades of research that has established how talc particles can cause ovarian cancer. Internal J&J documents show that the company ignored studies that linked talc products such as Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower to ovarian cancer and actively sought to hide their knowledge from the public by using corporate influence to prevent governmental regulation of these products
So all eyes were on Los Angeles where 63-year-old Eva Echeverria brought her case before a jury 1,800 miles from St. Louis, and the verdict shows that J&J’s legal problems cannot be blamed on a single so called Plaintiff-friendly venue. Any lawyer who has tried cases in St. Louis knows that St. Louis jurors are highly educated, sophisticated individuals in large part and are far from being friendly to Plaintiffs.
In Ms. Echeverria’s case, jurors heard how she had used J&J’s talc products for feminine hygiene since she was 11 years old because she thought doing so was harmless. In dramatic testimony, Ms. Echeverria described how she would have stopped using the product had the company placed a simple warning label on the bottles.
Perhaps most damaging of all, jurors heard how other talc products sold at retailers including Walmart and Dollar Tree have recently placed straightforward warning language regarding the talc-ovarian cancer link on their products, all while J&J continues refusing to provide such warnings on their products.
The testimony clearly resonated, and the jury moved to punish Johnson & Johnson in the only way that will make a difference to a publicly traded company – in the pocketbook. As part of the $417 million verdict, jurors imposed a record $347 million in punitive damages for the company’s failure to warn women such as Ms. Echeverria.
There is a reason why the courtroom losses keep piling up for Johnson & Johnson, and it has nothing to do with rogue juries or greedy trial lawyers. It’s because of Johnson & Johnson’s own conduct and disregard for all of the evidence linking talcum powder to ovarian cancer. J&J has been guilty of a massive cover-up of what they knew about the cancer risk and when they knew it.
As we observed national Ovarian Cancer Awareness month in September, it was highly important to have considered how corporations like Johnson & Johnson are relentless in their efforts to strip away our constitutional right to justice through jury trials, while wielding deep influence of the regulatory oversight of products in our marketplace. Thank goodness for our civil justice system and its ability to hold corporations accountable for unsafe products. Our firm, along with the others involved in the talc litigation, are honored to have been a part of the massive efforts to obtain justice for thousands of women who have been victimized by J&J. Eventually J&J will have to listen!
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