johnson johnson public relations

When you’re marketing products to the parents of newborns, those products better be safe. More often than not, they seem to be. But a recent judgment came down putting that assumption in serious jeopardy.

A Missouri state jury awarded $72 million to the family of a woman whose terminal cancer was linked to her use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower. The split of the award is telling: $10 million for actual damages and $62 million in punitive damages. This is the first time in U.S. history a jury has awarded damages in excess of the claims.

The language in the suit was stiff and damning. J&J was accused of knowingly failing to warn consumers its talc-based products may cause cancer. Now, roughly 1,200 cases have been filed in two states. The Missouri case involved a woman named Fox, who claimed to have used the two products for more than 35 years for feminine hygiene, eventually being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died last October at the age of 62.

Jurors hit J&J with three hard judgments – fraud, negligence, and conspiracy. The verdict only took four hours.

During the case, one attorney for Fox’s family said Johnson & Johnson “knew as far back as the 1980s” that their products posed a cancer risk. Instead of addressing the risk, the attorney claimed, they lied to the public and regulatory agencies.

Immediately after the verdict was handed down, J&J started damage control.

Carol Goodrich, a Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman, said: “We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers, and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial. We sympathize with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence.”

The response is pretty much PR boilerplate. Exude confidence, offer sympathy, and appeal to science. But none of that holds much water when compared to a dead woman’s grieving family. J&J will have to do much better if they hope to come out of this without losing significant consumer confidence.