Avon Products Inc. was ordered by a California jury to pay $10.3 million in punitive damages to a woman who blamed her cancer on talc in its cosmetics, in the first such case the company has lost in U.S. litigation.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury that punished Avon Friday for hiding the risks that some of its talc-based powders can cause cancer had already awarded Rita Chapman $40 million in actual damages, bringing the total in the case to more than $50 million, according to court filings.
The $40 million award was intended to cover Chapman’s pain and medical costs tied to her battle with mesothelioma, a cancer specifically tied to asbestos exposure. Chapman alleged Avon’s powders contained asbestos-tainted talc that made her sick. The company – famous for its door-to-door saleswomen known as “Avon Ladies” – was acquired by Natura Cosmeticos SA in 2020.
“We are disappointed by this verdict and will vigorously pursue all available avenues to appeal,” Avon said in an emailed statement. “Avon is confident that it has strong grounds for appeal and will continue to defend its position.”
Avon faced almost 130 talc suits as of 2020, according to court records. That same year, the company said it was removing talc from its products, which are now largely marketed outside the U.S.
In Chapman’s case, jurors concluded Avon management knew talc in the company’s products posed a cancer risk but failed to warn consumers, according to a copy of the verdict sheet. They also found Avon executives acted with “malice, oppression or fraud” in hiding the products’ health risks. That opened the company to the punishment award.
Chapman, a 76-year-old resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, who worked as a human-relations specialist with the Sears retail chain, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2021, according to court filings. She’d used some Avon powders that had high levels of asbestos. Evidence in the case showed the company was seeking to sell out of its stocks of those powders during the time Chapman used them.
In awarding punitive damages, the jury was asked “to find a number that meant something to Avon,” Jessica Dean, one of Chapman’s lawyers, said in an emailed statement.
The Avon verdict comes as a federal appeals court is weighing whether Johnson & Johnson can continue to use a bankruptcy filing by its unit to halt thousands of cases filed by women who blame their cancers on talc in its iconic Baby Powder and other products.
Avon’s business in the U.S. has been sinking over the years as more women turned to the internet to buy their cosmetics instead of from in-person salespeople. Avon largely gave up on the U.S. selling its operations in the country to private-equity company Cerberus Capital Management LP in 2015.
In 2020, Natura purchased the remainder of the 136-year-old business for $2 billion in an all-stock deal. The Sao Paulo-based company still embraces the door-to-door model, with a direct-sales force of 1 million in Brazil alone.
A host of companies have dropped talc-based formulations over the last three years after a wave of cancer suits. Talc is often found in the same rock as asbestos, which researchers have tagged as a potent carcinogen. It was used in cosmetics and other products to absorb moisture, prevent caking and add softness.