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Family-products giant faces challenging legal future

A firm of Johnson & Johnson's stature -- and, frankly, that makes for a decidedly short list of players in the pantheon of global companies -- knows all about stark business risks and attendant downsides.

In J&J's case, company-directed lawsuits are a recurrent reality, especially given Johnson & Johnson's huge presence in the health care realm.

Although J&J's inner executive circle of course keeps a close collective eye on legal challenges, the company can never fully foresee truly monumental business risks that, when materialized, can threaten its very existence.

The recent piling on of lawsuits in one discrete and narrow realm readily underscores such a concern.

To wit: J&J is the named defendant in a whopping 4,500-plus civil filings alleging harms suffered through use of a company product.

Specifically, that product is talc that serves as a central ingredient in more than one popular J&J product. Legions of female users allege that there is a close link between talc use and their development of ovarian cancer, which is frequently deadly following its diagnosis.

Studies don't uniformly show strong evidence of such a tie. A 2000 research effort under the aegis of Harvard University, for example, showed "no overall association" between talc use and a common form of ovarian cancer. Conversely, a 1982 study often cited by plaintiffs posited a marked risk of ovarian cancer by talc consumers.

There seems to be no question at all regarding which way juries are presently leaning when presented with study evidence on the subject matter. One woman was awarded a $110.5 million judgment this past spring in one talc/ovarian cancer case.

And jurors handed down a pro-plaintiff verdict just last week that granted damages in the unprecedented amount of $417 million to a woman who had argued that J&J had failed to adequately warn of talc-related cancer dangers, despite long knowing of them.

As noted, there are legions of cases still to be decided. J&J's talc/cancer woes will undoubtedly remain as a principal challenge for quite some time.

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