DOJ, SEC are investigating product safety, corporate knowledge of contamination
WASHINGTON, D.C. —- Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) has revealed that the company is being investigated by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission over safety concerns about its talc-based products, including Johnson’s Baby Powder. In a corporate securities filing, J&J said it was “cooperating with these government inquiries and will be producing documents in response” to subpoenas it had received.
The inquiry was apparently spurred by numerous news reports in recent months showing that J&J has been concerned for decades about the risk of asbestos and other contaminants in its talcum powder products. That coverage details J&J’s efforts to suppress regulatory and public awareness of those potential dangers.
For several years, juries across the nation have found J&J liable for the ovarian cancer diagnoses of more than two dozen women, resulting in billions of dollars in damages. While some verdicts have been overturned on jurisdictional grounds, attorneys say the evidence of the inherent dangers in talcum powder use cannot be ignored.
“We applaud these agencies for this investigation, and we know what they will find,” said Leigh O’Dell, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs in multidistrict litigation against J&J on behalf of ovarian cancer victims. “At trial, we have presented the expert testimony and the overwhelming scientific evidence that talcum powder use can cause ovarian cancer. We’ve also shown the internal corporate documents that reveal a decades-long pattern of sabotage and subterfuge to deny that this threat exists for women around the world.”
Ms. O’Dell also said that she and other attorneys would cooperate with any governmental requests for testimony, documents and background information.
“We’d urge J&J to come clean about this risk, compensate these victims and their families, and provide adequate warnings on its packaging or simply pull this product off the shelves,” said Ted Meadows, a member of the trial team that has secured substantial verdicts against the company. “There are safer alternatives that exist, including J&J’s own corn starch-based powder.”
Mr. Meadows notes that the internal J&J documents revealed at trial, as well as in the initial reporting by Reuters and The New York Times, clearly show attempts by J&J to influence the FDA and promote safety testing not sensitive enough to adequately detect contaminants such as asbestos in its talcum powder products.
Last week, Imerys Talc America, a major supplier of talc used by Johnson & Johnson and a defendant in some of the lawsuits, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, largely based on concerns over litigation costs. Johnson & Johnson faces about 13,000 lawsuits in which its body powders are blamed for causing ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.
In late January, Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Republican-controlled Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, asked J&J CEO Alex Gorsky for documents and information regarding the company’s testing of talcum powder products, and how that information is presented to regulators and consumers.
In December, Health Canada, which is responsible for the national public health in that country, issued a draft assessment to all health care providers in the nation warning of the dangers of talcum powder use, and proposed adding talc to the government’s list of toxic substances that can pose risks to human health. Other countries, including India, have announced similar efforts.