Plaintiffs' attorneys firing the first courtroom salvos in sweeping litigation over popular products face a high hurdle to success: convincing jurors a product they may have used all of their lives can cause potentially catastrophic harm. That's the hurdle The Smith Law Firm's Allen Smith overcame in landing a $55 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson for the ovarian cancer Smith says J&J's signature-brand baby powder caused his client, Gloria Ristesund.
Ristesund, whom doctors diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011, claimed her 40-year use of the company's baby powder caused her disease. Her May 2016 trial in St. Louis, Missouri was just the second state court trial out of more than a thousand suits claiming long-term use of talc products caused ovarian cancer.
But the talc J&J uses is better known simply as the main ingredient in the baby powder used by generations of families. Butler Snow's Christy Jones, representing J&J, highlighted talc's common reputation as a harmless bathroom and changing-table staple. "We’re here because Ms. Ristesund claims that baby powder, a product that’s been on the market and used for 125 years by our mothers, our grandmothers, and all our babies, caused [her] ovarian cancer,” Jones said in openings. "Nobody knows what causes ovarian cancer."
However, at trial, Smith focused on decades of epidemiological studies linking talc and cancer, and J&J's refusal to warn consumers or quit using talc in their products altogether. In a powerful closing argument, he accused J&J of manufacturing "doubt" about talc's link to cancer and he grouped J&J with manufacturers of common products now infamous for the diseases they cause. "It is the same game plan (companies) used in asbestos. It is the same game plan (companies) use in tobacco. It is the same game plan they're trying to sell here," Smith said.
Smith went on to underline the jurors' role in the groundbreaking litigation. “This is a very, very important matter,” Smith said. “…This may be a big part of your lives that you’ll talk about with your family members... That you’ll talk to your children, your grandchildren about…This is an opportunity to address a known risk factor that affects thousands of women.”
All women, Smith said, “deserve to be able to make informed decisions about their health and safety."
It was a closing argument that swayed jurors on the purported dangers of talc, and opened the door to a $55 million verdict in a trial that will likely influence eyars of coming litigation.