July 28, 2017, Los Angeles – A closely watched and highly anticipated bellwether trial began Wednesday in California state court over the alleged ovarian cancer risks from Johnson & Johnson’s talc-containing hygiene products, in a case that could open up a new front in the sprawling litigation.
Plaintiff Eva Echeverria’s case is the first ovarian cancer talc trial in state court outside of St. Louis, Missouri, where six previous plaintiffs verdicts out of seven trials over the last two years saddled J&J with $300 million in damages and generated headlines that spawned thousands of similar lawsuits.
While St. Louis had been the principal hub for talc cases, with thousands of lawsuits pending due to lenient joinder rules that allowed out-of-state plaintiffs to file cases, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling put the brakes on that litigation based on jurisdictional grounds.
However Echeverria, 63, is a California resident who claims she developed ovarian cancer as a result of using J&J products like Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower while living in the state, so the ruling did not apply to her. While the 300 talc cases currently centralized in Los Angeles represent a much smaller docket than the thousands of cases pending in Missouri, a high-profile plaintiffs verdict in the nation’s most populous state could expose J&J to another wave of new lawsuits.
Like previous plaintiffs, Echeverria claims J&J had internal knowledge for decades of scientific studies that showed talc used on the genital area could cause particles to travel up the fallopian tubes and cause cancer. She alleges J&J knowingly withheld that information from the general public to protect the sales of popular brands, even as the company began to sell safer cornstarch-based powder products.
J&J maintains that talc is no more dangerous than red meat or alcohol, neither of which require a cancer warning label, and cites that numerous regulatory agencies have declined to label talc a carcinogen. They claim the scientific studies plaintiffs rely on are based on outdated research and flawed methodology.
Besides taking place before a new judge in a new state (all the previous talc trial in St. Louis took place before the same judge), Echeverria’s case faces the added twist of a pretrial summary judgment ruling that released J&J’s talc supplier, Imerys Talc America, from the case.
In that ruling, Judge Maren Nelson held that the bulk supplier of a raw material that is legal for sale has no duty to warn consumers about the possible dangers of the buyer’s finished product containing that material. All of the previous talc trials in St. Louis included Imerys as a defendant, however only one resulted in any liability being assigned to the company.
Echeverria’s trial was scheduled to begin earlier this month, but was delayed by days of argument over motions related to a lengthy “Sargon” hearing (California’s equivalent of a Daubert hearing) where attorneys clashed over the admissibility of expert witnesses for the plaintiffs.
“This case is simple,” the Plaintiff’s attorney told the 12-member Los Angeles jury. “It’s about the defendant’s corporate image over human life.”