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Colgate-Palmolive settles talc-asbestos case, dismisses link to cancer

A California woman with a deadly form of cancer has won a settlement with Colgate-Palmolive Co. after a Los Angeles jury found that asbestos-contaminated talcum powder was the main cause of her disease.

Colgate-Palmolive was ordered earlier this week to pay $12.4 million in damages. The case was then settled Wednesday for an undisclosed amount as jurors were about to consider tacking on punitive damages for plaintiff Judith Winkel and her husband, John Winkel. Judith Winkel, 73, of Santa Barbara, Calif., suffers from mesothelioma, a lethal type of cancer predominantly caused by asbestos exposure.

The two-week trial in Los Angeles Superior Court was the first to weigh allegations that, in past decades, the talc in Colgate’s popular Cashmere Bouquet powder came from asbestos-contaminated mines and that inhalation of asbestos fibers from the powder caused some cases of mesothelioma among people who had no other significant asbestos exposure. Winkel said she regularly used the powder from about 1961 to the mid-1970s. New York-based Colgate, which denied that Cashmere Bouquet was tainted by asbestos, sold the brand in 1995.

“Colgate was disappointed with the jury’s verdict,” company spokesman Tom DiPiazza said in a statement to FairWarning. He said the evidence showed that Cashmere Bouquet had “played no part in causing the plaintiff’s illness. In order to avoid devoting resources to continuing litigation through the appeals process, the parties have entered in a confidential settlement.”

Judith and John Winkel declined to be interviewed. Chris Panatier, one of their lawyers, said the risk posed by contaminated powders “is something that is coming to light due to the legal system. It should have come to light due to the company being honest in the ’60s and ’70s about the fact that they were finding asbestos in their talcum powder.’’

Talc, the softest of minerals, is widely used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even as a food additive. Companies that use talc say it’s free of asbestos or that asbestos is below detection limits. Over the years, however, some talc has been mined from deposits interlaced with asbestos. In some cases, talc suppliers have paid settlements or damages to factory workers who used industrial-grade talc and contracted asbestos-related illnesses.

However, lawsuits over the cosmetic-grade talc in body powders are recent. In what appears to be the only other case to go to trial, a New Jersey jury in November 2013 awarded $1.6 million to a mesothelioma victim who blamed his illness on asbestos fibers tracked home by his father from a job at a plant where Old Spice and Desert Flower powders were produced. That verdict was against the talc supplier Whittaker, Clark & Daniels Inc.

Several other suits are pending against Colgate alleging harm from Cashmere Bouquet. The company has said in court papers that “over 10 other actions’’ have been dismissed.

The cases are distinct from a wave of claims against Johnson & Johnson that charge feminine-hygiene use of its talc powders caused ovarian cancer. As reported earlier by FairWarning, about 700 such claims are pending against the company and its talc supplier Imerys Talc America Inc. These cases don’t challenge Johnson & Johnson’s assertions that its powders are asbestos-free, and claim that talc is responsible for the harm. Johnson & Johnson and Imerys say talc powders are safe.

The Winkels’ lawyers presented evidence that they said proved that during the years Judith Winkel used Cashmere Bouquet, Colgate got talc from mines in Montana, North Carolina and Northern Italy that were known to be contaminated.

In highly technical arguments, attorneys for Colgate contended that minerals found in the mines were not in fibrous form and hence were not asbestos and did not pose an inhalation hazard. In her closing statement, Colgate lawyer Faith E. Gay noted that health studies of workers at one of the mines did not turn up a single case of mesothelioma, despite the workers’ “massive daily exposure” to the talc.

“Cashmere Bouquet did not harm Mrs. Winkel,” she said. There was a “clear absence of proof connecting any disease to our product.”

Jurors did not agree, and took only about two hours to reach their verdict.

In all, they awarded damages of $13,033,000 for past medical bills and other economic losses, and for pain and suffering and reduced life expectancy. Colgate was held 95 percent responsible – or for about $12.4 million. The remaining 5 percent of damages was spread among four other firms that used asbestos products to which Winkel might have been exposed at home or work.

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