Johnson & Johnson has always insisted that its baby powder is “safe, asbestos-free, and does not cause cancer”. However, a 2016 investigation by Bloomberg and subsequent revelations by Reuters and the New York Times exposed the possible health risk related to its powders.

Following those reports, tens of thousands of people filed suits against the company, alleging that its products had caused their cancers. In 2020, after juries awarded some of those plaintiffs damages that collectively exceeded billions of dollars, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would no longer supply the talc-based version of its product to American stores.

And then, quietly, the company embraced a strategy to circumvent juries entirely. Deploying a legal manoeuvre, Johnson & Johnson, a company valued at nearly half a trillion dollars, with a credit rating higher than that of the United States government, declared bankruptcy.

Because of that move, the fate of 40,000 current lawsuits and the possibility of future claims by cancer victims or their survivors now rests with a single bankruptcy judge in the company’s home state, New Jersey. If Johnson & Johnson “weasels its way out of everything”, the case could usher in a new era in which the government has diminished power to enforce consumer-protection laws, citizens don’t get to make their case before a jury of their peers when those laws fail, and even corporations with long histories of documented harm will get to decide how much, if anything, they owe their victims.

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