Big Island woman sues Johnson & Johnson over mesothelioma diagnosis

HILO — An Ahualoa woman is suing the manufacturer of a popular brand of baby powder, claiming asbestos contamination of the talc-based powder caused her mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer. Its only known cause is asbestos exposure.

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The civil lawsuit was filed Thursday in Honolulu Circuit Court on behalf of Jacqueline Becker. The complaint names Johnson &Johnson and Foodland Supermarket Ltd. as defendants.

The 64-year-old Becker, an equine chiropractor, avid equestrian and show rider, was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in February, which her attorneys allege was caused by her regular use of Johnson &Johnson’s asbestos-containing talcum powder. Becker who was raised in Australia and moved to Hawaii in 1991, also used the powder to care for her horses.

Ilana Waxman, managing partner of the Honolulu law firm Galiher DeRobertis &Waxman, pointed to a federal test last month by the Food and Drug Administration, in which a bottle of Johnson &Johnson baby powder was found to contain asbestos.

“So Johnson &Johnson issued a voluntary recall of just that lot, which was about 30,000 bottles. But even in the face of the FDA’s tests, they’ve continued to deny that there really is asbestos in the baby powder,” Waxman said.

In June, a state jury in New York ordered Johnson &Johnson was ordered to pay $300 million in punitive damages to Donna Olson and her husband, who claim its talcum powder caused her to develop mesothelioma. The same jury awarded the Olsons $25 million in compensatory damages. That verdict is being appealed.

In July, the U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation to determine if Johnson &Johnson misled the public about asbestos fibers in its talcum powder.

“That asbestos is a natural contaminant of talc is well known, going back to the 1930s,” Waxman said. “So by the 1970s, companies like Johnson &Johnson and the FDA were starting to look at this issue, the possibility of asbestos being in baby powder and other talcum powder. And essentially, the industry at that time was successful at convincing the FDA to let them self-regulate. There were test results that show asbestos in baby powder that go back to the ’70s and before, but the companies like Johnson &Johnson that made the powder were successful in saying, ‘Oh, those were aberrations. The tests were wrong.’ And essentially burying the issue until now.”

Waxman said Foodland, a Hawaii-based supermarket chain is named a defendant because “as a retailer, they have liability under product liability law for selling unsafe products, and that was one of Jackie’s main sources of purchasing baby powder once she was in Hawaii.”

When she was diagnosed, Becker’s first reactions were “it can’t be me” and “how long have I got to live?” She said doctors ordered four rounds of chemotherapy.

“When they got to the third round, it nearly killed me. But now I’m recovering from the chemo,” Becker said. She said the treatment took a toll on her heart, kidneys and drastically reduced her count of platelets, the blood cells that help the body form clots to stop bleeding.

“My heart as it is right now, I get out of breath quite quickly, especially with the lung damage. But I’m on the road to recovery, I believe,” she said.

Becker said she’s now being treated with Keytruda, an antibody treatment for certain types of cancer.

The personal injury suit has been assigned to Judge James Ashford. No trial date has been set.

Waxman said Johnson &Johnson has been willing to settle very few mesothelioma cases related to its baby powder.

“They have been fighting these cases very hard and they have taken a very strong stance to say that there is not and never has been asbestos as a contaminant in their baby powder, and all the tests that seem to show asbestos are all wrong. I think that becomes more difficult for them to do in the face of the FDA test last month,” she said.

“I actually know that there was a trial going on in … Indiana when those results were released, and Johnson &Johnson settled that case as soon as the judge ruled that the jury would be permitted to hear about the FDA testing.”

Becker said, more than anything, she’d like to get back to work.

“I need some money. I’m just slowly going broke with the small savings I had,” she said. “And I can’t work right now because I’m too weak. So a little bit of money somewhere down the line would be nice. And I need to get strong because there’s a chance they might have to cut my lung out, but I have to be strong enough because my heart’s not strong enough right now and neither are my kidneys.”

Waxman declined to talk about a specific dollar amount sought for her client.

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“You’re looking at the value of somebody’s life, which is not something that you can even put a price tag on,” she said. “But I think Jackie has already been forced to pay a pretty terrible cost, and compensation for what she went through and what she’s continuing to go through should be something that’s substantial and significant. And significant to also send a message to Johnson &Johnson. Because frankly, the reason they did not pull talcum powder off the market the minute they started to find potential asbestos contamination is because … they were concerned with making money.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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