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Hair Relaxer Lawsuits Cleared To Move Forward, After Judge Rejects Motion to Dismiss Master Complaint
The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal hair relaxer lawsuits has rejected efforts by the manufacturers to dismiss thousands of claims that toxic chemicals in the chemical straighteners caused women to develop uterine cancer, ovarian cancer and other injuries.
Concerns about the safety of hair relaxers gained widespread attention late last year, following the publication of a study that highlighted a link between use of hair relaxer and uterine cancer in October 2022. Researchers found that that frequent use was associated with a 156% increased risk compared to women who did not use hair relaxers.
Women throughout the United States are now pursuing product liability claims against the manufacturers, each indicating that they may have avoided a cancer diagnosis or other injury if the manufacturers had adequately disclosed risks associated with applying the chemicals to their scalps.
The makers of Dark & Lovely, Just for Me, ORS Olive Oil, and other widely used hair relaxer products, now face more than 8,200 product liability lawsuits, all raising similar allegations that the manufacturers knew or should have known about link between cancer and hair relaxers, yet placed their desire for profits before the health and safety of African Americans and other women.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in hair relaxer lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) established coordinated pretrial proceedings in the Northern District of Illinois under U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland in January 2023.
While the litigation continues to grow, Judge Rowland has indicated that she will establish a “bellwether” process, where small groups of representative claims will go through case-specific discovery and be prepared for early trial dates, to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.
Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Motion to Dismiss Denied
Early in the litigation, the manufacturers filed a wide-ranging motion to dismiss, claiming that the lawsuits were preempted by federal law, and that plaintiffs had failed to adequately present their claims.
In a memorandum opinion and order (PDF) issued on November 13, Judge Rowland rejected most of the defendants’ assertions, allowing the litigation to move forward. On many of the claims, such as failure to warn, design defect, negligence, and punitive damages, Judge Rowland said the defendants’ efforts to have them dismissed were premature, or that plaintiffs had clearly presented their claims correctly.
“Defendants contend that Plaintiffs’ allegations are conclusory and they have not identified specific products or defects in those products. The Court does not agree,” Judge Rowland wrote. “Plaintiffs allege that Defendants’ products contained toxic chemicals. Specifically, they allege harmful and carcinogenic ingredients in Defendants’ hair relaxer products ‘are known to disrupt and/or harm a woman’s endocrine system’.”
Judge Rowland, however, did dismiss plaintiffs’ fraud claims, saying that their pleading failed to meet the higher legal standard for fraud-related allegations. She also dismissed two international defendants, which the Court did not have jurisdiction over, Dubar International Limited, and Dermovia Skin Essentials, Inc.
Plaintiffs Propose November 2025 Bellwether Trial Date
The decision means the hair relaxer lawsuits will proceed through the pretrial process, including the preparation of a small group of representative claims for early bellwether trials, which will help the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.
On November 10, plaintiffs proposed a draft hair relaxer lawsuit bellwether trial plan (PDF), which outlines a process for selecting potential bellwether cases and putting them through the discovery process. The plan calls for the first hair relaxer lawsuit bellwether trial to be begin on November 3, 2025, with a second trial starting on February 2, 2026.
The plaintiffs’ plan calls for the first bellwether trials to be restricted to those cases involving uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, and/or ovarian cancer injuries filed on or before December 15, 2023. Each party would select 10 initial bellwether discovery cases each, including seven uterine and/or endometrial cancer claims, and three ovarian cancer lawsuits.
These 20 cases would be selected by May 1, 2024, and would go through core fact discovery until September 2024, when the parties will choose four bellwether trial cases. If they cannot agree on four such cases, they will each submit their own list and the Court will decide which four will be the first to go before juries by October 4, 2024.
The plan also includes proposed summary judgment and Daubert dates, further discovery, and other proposed trial preparation dates.
Following coordinated discovery in the MDL and any early bellwether trials, if the parties fail to negotiate hair relaxer settlements for individuals diagnosed with uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids and other complications, Judge Rowland may later remand each individual lawsuit directly filed in the MDL back to the U.S. District Court where it would have originated for a separate trial.
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