Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay AU$100 million in talcum powder cancer case

Johnson & Johnson: $100m talc-cancer payout

The family of a woman whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of Johnson & Johnson's talc-based Baby Powder and Shower to Shower is awarded $100 million in damages by a Missouri state jury in the US.

A jury has awarded $72 million (AU$100 million) in damages on a woman's claim that her longtime use of baby powder and other Johnson & Johnson products contributed to the ovarian cancer that killed her.

The St. Louis Circuit Court jury found that the company failed to warn the public and conspired to hide the truth, said Jim Onder, one of the lead attorneys.

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal, and has issued a statement insisting the products are safe.

Jackie Fox and her son Marvin Salter.
Jackie Fox and her son Marvin Salter. Photo: Supplied

The plaintiffs' lawyers said it was the first jury in the nation to award damages over claims that are the basis of at least 1200 suits in St. Louis and elsewhere.

The verdict, in favour of the family of deceased woman Jacqueline Fox, was for $10 million (AU$103.9 million) in actual damages and the remainder in punitive damages. About half the punitive damages would go toward the Missouri Crime Victim Compensation Fund, Onder said.

Fox, 62, of Birmingham, Alabama, died last autumn, about two years after being diagnosed. Her son, Marvin Salter, became plaintiff after her death. Jurors heard from Fox in an audio deposition.

The product at the heart of it all: Johnson's Baby Powder.
The product at the heart of it all: Johnson's Baby Powder.  Photo: supplied

The suit claimed her use for more than 35 years of talc-containing products, such as Johnson's Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder for feminine hygiene, contributed to her cancer.

The more than three-week trial culminated in nearly five hours of deliberations that delivered a decision on Monday night. 

One juror, Jerome Kendrick, 50, said he and nine women voted in favor of Fox.

The company's internal memos "pretty much sealed my opinion," Kendrick said.

"They tried to cover up and influence the boards that regulate cosmetics.

"They could have at least put a warning label on the box but they didn't. They did nothing."

He said the $62 million total was calculated at $1 million for each year of Fox's life.

Fox's son, Salter, said, "I was speechless when we heard the initial number." He added, "To think how groundbreaking this could be for so many other women."

He said Johnson & Johnson is a household name he always trusted. "My reaction was disbelief. How can a company have known about this relationship between talc and ovarian cancer since the 1970s and not disclosed it?"

He was the only biological child of Fox, a single mother who also raised foster children.

Lead attorney Onder said that after being diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, Fox contacted lawyers based on a TV ad about talc. "The sad part is, she had to learn about it from lawyer ads, while Johnson & Johnson tried to hide the truth from her," he said.

"All their internal documents show that they knew talc caused ovarian cancer, and actively undertook to hide the truth, not only from the governmental regulators but from the public."

He said the company spent 30 years preparing for litigation over it.

He said one company internal document talks about declining product use because of increased awareness of the health risk, and how to grow the franchise by targeting blacks and Hispanics as the highest users of talcum powder. Fox was black.

Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral. Fox's lawyers said corn starch is a safer alternative but the company chose not to use it.

The American Cancer Society's website says "it has been suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary."

But the society says studies have mixed results, some showing a slightly increased risk and some showing none. The research continues. 

An epidemiologist who testified for Fox estimated about 10 percent of those who die have ovarian cancers linked to talc.

A pathologist found talc in Fox's ovaries, which caused the inflammation which in turn caused her cancer, Beasley said.

Salter said his mother, who died on October 6, did not sue for the money.

"It was a fight," he said, "so others are warned."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch