How I Took On Johnson & Johnson In Small Claims Court, And Won

Desitin, the diaper rash treatment, is not a nice-smelling substance. Joyce’s husband, Ben, could tell that much before using it to treat the aftereffects of some severe gastrointestinal distress. What he didn’t realize was that the unholy stench could not be defeated. It soaked through his clothing, and when he tried to launder those clothes, the smell didn’t go away: it spread to those other items as well. Annoyed at having to toss $600 worth of clothing, the couple contacted Johnson & Johnson, seeking compensation and encouraging the company to do more to deter people who do not currently wear disposable diapers from using the product. After some letters and an offer of $75 passed in the mail, they went to small claims court. And won.

My husband, taking medication with unfortunate gastrointestinal side effects, got a jar of Desitin, the maximum-strength paste.

He applied as directed. (On the website, it says to apply in a “super-thick layer” as if you were “frosting a cake.” Cute, no?) He did notice that it was hard to wash off his hands. Really hard. He spent a good 10 minutes scrubbing.

The Desitin soaked through his boxers and his pants. Suddenly, it was everywhere. And the smell? Beyond words.

We did the laundry. Twice, with extra-hot water. But we made the mistake of putting some other clothing in with the Desitin-tainted items. Everything came out indelibly Desitinized. The smell metastasized.

Too late did we see that the internet was full of people warning against that devil’s spawn of a product, Desitin.

They advised using vinegar and Dawn, the dishwashing liquid that saves oil-coated birds. We soaked overnight. We washed again. We resoaked. We rewashed. All to no avail. Other suggested solvents were WD-40 and lighter fluid. Hmmm.

The dry cleaner refused the socks and underwear but took two shirts and two pairs of shorts, all of which came back still smelling.

Johnson & Johnson knows that Desitin will wreck your stuff, because their consumer-care reps are authorized to send a check for up to $75 worth of property damage. Well, our bill for cleaning products and dry cleaning was $135. The replacement value of the clothing was about $600.

Our letters to J&J, with a smelly swatch included, indicated we would prefer to settle between ourselves, without resorting to the courts. They wouldn’t negotiate.

Time: Eight months later. Place: Small claims court. Personae: Me, an arbitrator and a lawyer that J&J hired to fight the claim.

The case hinged on product labeling. The Desitin defense was that “diaper rash” means you must use the product with a diaper, thereby containing its spread. Ridiculous, I said. Does that mean you can’t get athlete’s foot unless you’re an athlete?

Nowhere does the label say you must use Desitin with a diaper, or that it could ruin any and all items it touched.

Gingerly, I presented the evidence, swaddled in three layers of plastic. When I opened the bag, that distinctive Desitin stench belched forth.

The arbitrator, an expert in product-liability law, noted that some cream and lotion labels feature extensive information for use, including warnings that the product might stain fabric.

We won $335. The law mandates depreciated value, not replacement value. On my way back from court, I threw the evidence into the trash. When I got home, I smelled like Desitin.

Like Desitin, and like victory.

How To Take Your Case To Small Claims Court