ST. LOUIS (Legal Newsline) - Seventeen thousand individuals contacted a law firm in the weeks after the family of a Alabama woman was awarded $72 million by a jury, one that found Johnson & Johnson hid information linking ovarian cancer to talcum powder.
Jere Beasley and his Alabama firm, Beasley Allen, and lawyers in Missouri, already have 750 pending cases involving either individuals claiming they suffered ovarian cancer because of their use of talc, or family members of those deceased.
Of the estimated 17,000 that contacted his law offices, Beasley said his team and partners are investigating close to 12,000.
Beasley represented Jacqueline Fox, a 62-year-old from Birmingham, AL, who died while the case against Johnson & Johnson was still pending. Her son was added as a plaintiff after her death.
A jury in St. Louis awarded the family $10 million in compensatory damages, and $62 million in punitive damages, $1 million for every year of her life, a juror explained to Beasley after the three-week trial ended in February. It was much more than the legal team had asked for, or expected.
“I would have been shocked if it had been a verdict for the defendant,” Beasley told Legal Newsline. “But I was surprised at the amount and the reason for it.”
Michael Jordan, a partner with the Nexsen Pruet law firm in South Carolina who has defended companies against talcum powder lawsuits, said juries in large cities and in certain parts of the country can be very generous with awards.
“Verdicts of these sizes are not surprising in a large city where the defendant is a corporation,” said Jordan, adding that the amount ultimately transferred is often much, much smaller.
St. Louis, where many hundreds of cases against Johnson & Johnson have, or will, be filed, has a reputation as one of those cities where juries have delivered huge dollar awards, Jordan said. He cited areas of Texas, also.
But Beasley said the jury in the Fox case included medical personnel and executives.
The $72 million award was one of two recent verdicts against Johnson & Johnson after the jury found it covered up concerns over talcum powder and links to ovarian cancer.
A second trial in St. Louis ended with the plaintiff, Gloria Ristesund of South Dakota, being awarded $55 million in compensation and punitive damages.
In a third, somewhat different case, a California woman won a $13 million lawsuit in May 2015 against Colgate-Palmolive after a jury determined she developed mesothelioma from asbestos in the company’s Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder.
Cases against Johnson & Johnson and other firms that used talc in their products have been filed in various part of the country, including in Louisiana, California and Florida.
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral mined in various parts of the world. Traces of asbestos have been found in the mineral, but since the 1970s companies have been aware of its dangers and made sure no trace made it to products placed on shelves, according to Jordan.
Jordan, who has successfully defended companies accused of selling asbestos-laced talcum powder and other products, said the California case was different from those in St. Louis.
In California, the claim was the product was contaminated with asbestos. In the two cases in St. Louis, it was argued the talcum powder itself caused the cancer.
Johnson & Johnson is appealing the two recent verdicts and the size of the awards.
"Multiple scientific and regulatory reviews have determined that talc is safe for use in cosmetic products and the labeling on Johnson's Baby Powder is appropriate," the company said in a statement following the verdict in the Ristesund case.
It also said 1,400 cases are pending against the company.
Jordan said he does not know the basis of the appeal, but that, if nothing else, the company can argue the amount of the award “shocks the conscience.”
He added, “You have ovarian cancer. It’s a terrible disease. And if you are making the choice between a sympathetic plaintiff and a corporation, there is a bias in favor of the individual.
“The question for Johnson & Johnson is that medical science has not determined whether exposure of internal organs to talc is problematic. That’s what the real question is, as there is no real medical answer.”
Between six and 10 limited studies have been carried out, and they either showed no causal link or are inconclusive, said Jordan.
The American Cancer Society said more research is needed. For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to very be small, the ACS notes on its website.
But Beasley said he is certain the ovarian cancer that killed his client, Fox, was caused by Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, and that the company covered up the link between the two.
Fox’s attorneys introduced a 1997 internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant suggesting that “anybody who denies (the) risks” between 'hygenic' talc use and ovarian cancer will be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer."
“Denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary,” the consultant wrote.
Beasley believes Johnson & Johnson will, in the end, have no choice but to settle many of the cases.