For years lawyers have been suing Johnson & Johnson claiming that its baby powder has caused ovarian cancer, a theory that has mostly met with failure in court. This summer, however, a St. Louis jury found liability and ordered the company to pay $4.69 billion, on a related theory that asbestos contaminants in the product (as opposed to talc itself) caused the disease. On December 14 Reuters followed with a lengthy piece laying out, and implicitly siding with, the plaintiff lawyers’ accusations; the piece drew wide publicity, and the company’s shares sank by about $50 billion. Some analysts have written that J&J’s lawsuit payouts on the issue could reach $20 billion.
Now a leading business columnist has explained why he doubts that outcome. “Why? Because whether or not the company’s talcum powder contains asbestos, and whether or not it hid that fact from the public, the science remains firmly on J&J’s side.” [Joe Nocera, Bloomberg] How so? “There is no evidence that women who use talcum powder are any more likely to get ovarian cancer than women who don’t. In both California and New Jersey, judges have tossed out cases on exactly this basis.” So while plaintiffs make the most of their dark imputations of a cover-up, what they haven’t shown is that women who used the baby powder are any more likely to contract cancer than those who did not. Nocera: “And this is one mass tort where I’m convinced the science is going to win.”
Meanwhile, Mark Lanier, the Texas-based lawyer who won the St. Louis verdict, freely agrees that his efforts have helped affect J&J’s stock price. “It serves my purposes as a litigator to say, ‘Yes, get their attention; keep driving the stock down.'” [Matthew J. Belvedere, CNBC] And: “New York’s specialized court for asbestos lawsuits could become a pivotal battleground for litigation over talcum powder as plaintiff lawyers seek to establish a record of wins in a court system known for liberal rules and big jury verdicts.” [Daniel Fisher, Forbes]