On May 31, 2019, Johnson & Johnson announced that it had been ordered to pay $300 million in punitive damages—12 times the amount of compensatory damages they had already been assessed—to 66-year-old New York resident Donna Olson.
Olson, along with tens of thousands of other talc plaintiffs, alleged that Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder led them to develop a type of cancer typically only seen among those who worked with asbestos. Although this baby powder remains on the market, many who have used it daily for decades are later diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung cancer, or ovarian cancer.
Health experts have pointed to the talc in this talcum baby powder as the likely source of asbestos contamination. Although talcum powder contains other harmless powder agents, like cornstarch, talc and asbestos have similar textures and, in nature, can often be found in close proximity to each other. Decades of exposure to airborne asbestos particles, even microscopic ones, has been scientifically proven to cause cancer; but because the specific batches of baby powder that are alleged to have contained asbestos (and therefore cause cancer) are long gone and cannot be quality-tested, it’s all but impossible to pinpoint a specifically contaminated source.
Johnson & Johnson continues to vehemently refute the allegations that it’s baby powder causes cancer or contains asbestos, which—along with the inconclusive nature of many product tests—is one of the key reasons this baby powder is still offered for sale and even marketed for use on infants.
Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the Olson verdict, and the sheer magnitude of the punitive damage award has led many analysts to believe that the plaintiff will likely end up with a more modest sum. Several other high-dollar jury awards in favor of talc plaintiffs have been overturned on appeal, with some later settling out of court. However, with more than 14,000 cases still pending, some in state courts that may have slightly different liability and evidentiary burdens, it seems this talc powder fight is far from over.