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Judge tosses out $417 million verdict in cancer case

Johnson & Johnson baby powder products on a store shelf. (Photo: Raihana Asra, va Shutterstock)

Overriding a huge jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson, a Los Angeles judge has ordered a new trial in the case of an ovarian cancer victim who claimed she contracted the disease through longtime use of the company’s talc powders for feminine hygiene.

The ruling voids the August award of $417 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Eve Echeverria, 62, of Los Angeles. She died Sept. 20 after struggling for a decade with her cancer, which had spread to other organs. In a 70-page opinion and order, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maren E. Nelson voided the jury’s 9-3 decision that Echeverria’s use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder caused, or contributed to, her illness.

“Sitting as the thirteenth juror the Court is of the firm conclusion that the evidence of specific causation is not sufficient to support the verdict,’’ the judge wrote.

In granting J&J’s motion for a new trial, Nelson also found that the award was excessive, and that jurors improperly discussed attorney fees and taxes as a reason to increase the compensatory damages.

Eva Echeverria, who died in September after a long battle with ovarian cancer, and her grandson Caleb. (FairWarning.org)

It’s not uncommon for trial judges to reduce multi-million dollar awards if they deem the amounts to be excessive. But it’s unusual for a judge to wipe out a jury verdict, as Nelson did in her ruling late Friday.

“We disagree with the court’s decision. We will file an appeal immediately,” said Mark P. Robinson Jr., a lawyer for Echeverria’s family, in a written statement today. “A jury of Ms. Echeverria’s peers found The Johnson and Johnson defendants liable. We will ask the appellate court to uphold this jury’s verdict. We will continue to fight on behalf of all women who have been impacted by this dangerous product.”

J&J spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said the company was pleased with the ruling. “Ovarian cancer is a devastating disease —- but it is not caused by the cosmetic-grade talc we have used in Johnson’s Baby Powder for decades,’’ she said in a written statement. ‘’The science is clear and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder as we prepare for additional trials in the U.S.”

The Los Angeles ruling was the second key legal victory in less than a week for J&J. As FairWarning has reported, the company faces about 6,000 claims by ovarian cancer victims around the country.

On Oct. 17, a Missouri appeals court tossed out a $72 million verdict stemming from the death of Jacqueline Fox. The appeals panel cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that lawsuits must be brought in the jurisdiction where plaintiffs were injured or where a defendant is based. Fox was from Birmingham, Ala., but her case was tried in Missouri state court in St. Louis, where at least 1,000 other claims by women from other states are pending.

In the Fox case and three others involving nonresident women, St. Louis juries have awarded damages of about $305 million. Based on the appeals court decision in the Fox case, the other three awards to nonresidents appear to be in jeopardy, along with the other pending claims by nonresidents.

Ed’s Note: This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, California, that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues. Myron Levin is the editor of FairWarning.


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