Last week a jury in St. Louis became the fourth in a year to award substantial damages to a plaintiff who believes that consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson’s talcum power is linked to ovarian cancer. According to a Bloomberg News report, the Missouri jury awarded the woman $110 million in damages. This follows three jury verdicts of $55 to $72 million in similar cases last year (the company has won one case during the same period, according to Bloomberg). Appeals are expected in all of the cases.
The agency quotes the attorney for the plaintiff in the St. Louis case saying: “Once again we’ve shown that these companies ignored the scientific evidence and continue to deny their responsibilities to the women of America… they chose to put profits over people, spending millions in efforts to manipulate scientific and regulatory scrutiny.” In addition to the millions in damages from J&J the jury also Imerys Talc America, a separate company that manufacturers talc sold under the J&J label, to pay $100,000 in damages.
Bloomberg reports that more than 1000 cases alleging a link between J&J’s talc and ovarian cancer have already been filed. Though J&J is headquartered in New Jersey many of these cases have been filed in Missouri because that state’s laws allow for suits like these to be filed in its courts even when the plaintiff has no connection to the state (last week’s $110 million verdict involved a woman from Virginia). But is it necessary for all these cases to head for the Midwest? Are the product liability laws here in Oregon adequate to address cases like this?
The short answer is ‘yes.’ A key point here is that product liability is almost entirely a function of state law. As Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute notes, “there is no federal products liability law.” Here in Oregon, Chapter 30 of the Oregon Revised Statutes governs the situations when an individual or group can claim damages because of a faulty product and/or negligence on the part of manufacturers and merchants. ORS 30.920 explicitly states that “one who sells or leases any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to the property of the user or consumer is subject to liability for physical harm or damage to property caused by that condition.” As other sections of the law make clear this can and does extend all the way to potential wrongful death actions.
In the case of Johnson & Johnson, numerous lawsuits now allege that “J&J didn’t warn women of studies linking talc to ovarian cancer to protect the company’s image” according to the Bloomberg report. The company has dismissed any scientific link between talc and ovarian cancer, but jurors quoted by Bloomberg after the most recent trial indicated that they were convinced the company had withheld critical information from consumers. The article notes that the International Agency for Research on Cancer first classified talc as a possible carcinogen in 2006. After the trial one juror suggested that a warning label on the product would have put consumers in a better position to make informed choices.
As an Oregon lawyer I have long focused my practice on helping people obtain the justice they deserve, even when facing off against large and powerful corporations. Our courts remain one of the few places where ordinary Oregonians can genuinely hold corporate America to account. Accountability is essential when companies place their bottom lines ahead of public health and safety, and our justice system is one of the few things that ensures this. It is important that we fight to make sure that access to justice always remains possible for everyone.
Cornell University Law School – Legal Information Institute: Products liability