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Jury awards $417 million to J&J talc plaintiff, upending theories

A jury in California recently awarded a 63-year-old woman $417 million in a verdict against Johnson & Johnson because its product caused her ovarian cancer.  She had used the company's baby powder for feminine hygiene since childhood. Plaintiffs in several states have brought suits against Johnson & Johnson, claiming that talc-based products cause cancer when routinely used for feminine hygiene.

The $417-million verdict exceeded the total of all previous talc verdicts, which ranged from $55 million to $110 million. 

After some plaintiffs had success in St. Louis's courts, others followed -- some from out of state. Johnson & Johnson accused them of "forum shopping" -- intentionally filing cases in courts thought to be more sympathetic to their claims, rather than filing in the nearest appropriate venue.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state courts cannot hear cases brought against companies outside their jurisdiction unless the alleged injury occurred in that jurisdiction. J&J is based in New Jersey, so out-of-state plaintiffs can no longer file suit in St. Louis.

Product liability experts had been wondering whether the cases in St. Louis were outliers, or if future talc lawsuits against J&J could be successful. "This has very much been about forum shopping," said a professor at Fordham School of Law regarding the talc lawsuits.

Now, with a large verdict awarded to the California plaintiff, it appears that J&J may be facing substantial risk of liability. There are currently around 4,800 talc lawsuits awaiting trial or settlement.

Talc is a naturally occurring substance that is used in many different cosmetic and personal care products. Under the law of product liability, a naturally occurring product or additive could be considered defective if it is changed before distribution, if dangerous uses are encouraged, or if the manufacturer fails to warn consumers about known risks.

Johnson & Johnson has been accused of failing to warn women against, and even encouraging them to use talc for feminine hygiene despite having known of scientific studies that link ovarian cancer and genital talc use.

The company denies that its talc-based products cause cancer and has vowed to appeal the latest verdict.

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