J&J NOT FARING WELL IN 2018 TRIAL VERDICTS AS PLAINTIFFS WIN AT TRIAL AGAIN
By Mark A. York (April 6, 2018)
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) Johnson & Johnson was hit again in a courtroom. This time for $37 million in New Jersey state court, where a jury found that J&J’s talcum powder based products contain asbestos and caused the male plaintiff Stephen Lanzo to develop mesothelioma, a fatal cancer. The “talc” verdict occurred late Thursday, April 5, 2018 before Judge Ana C. Viscomi, who presides over the state’s centralized asbestos docket, closely followed the March 8th trial verdict against J&J for $35 million in the J&J Ethicon Pelvic Mesh trial, which found that J&J hid the dangers of its synthetic surgical mesh products. In the Lanzo talc trial, Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier were found to have caused the plaintiff to develop mesothelioma, after using the pharmaceutical giant’s asbestos-containing talcum powder over several decades. The case docket entry is Lanzo v. Cyprus Amex Minerals Co, et al., Docket No. L00738516 in Middlesex County Superior Court, Judge Anna C. Viscomi.
Johnson & Johnson is facing hundreds of additional lawsuits in a federal multi-district litigation also in New Jersey, see Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder MDL 2738 (USDC New Jersey), this litigation is related primarily to the ovarian cancer claims brought by women across the country, who claim that J&J talcum powder products cause ovarian cancer, which combined with the emerging talc mesothelioma lawsuits, would open an entire new area of mass tort litigation for J&J and its affiliates to defend.
The Lanzo trial started on January 29th and was closely watched, as the first “talc” lawsuit to go to trial in Johnson & Johnson’s home state over allegations that talcum-based hygiene products like Baby Powder and Shower to Shower contained asbestos and that J&J failed to warn of the risk as well as hid data that showed asbestos was in its products. The asbestos allegations are now an evolving legal fight for J&J, as most prior litigation over its Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products were over claims that the products have caused ovarian cancer in women. Those five cases case have been in the Missouri and California state courts over the last 2 years, with plaintiffs winning all but one of the trials, see J&J Talcum Powder Litigation, Missouri State Court, St Louis County Docket.
J&J WON FIRST CALIFORNIA TALC MESO TRIAL
Of note, is the California court trial verdict from November 16, 2017 where J&J did win a victory in the first mesothelioma trial; where J&J and co-defendant Imerys Talc America successfully defended claims by plaintiff Tina Herford that J&J’s Baby Powder caused her to be stricken with mesothelioma, after 35 years of using their products daily..
The New Jersey trial was the first case that went to trial, where a male plaintiff has asserted cancer causing claims involving J&J’s talc products. Plaintiff Stephen Lanzo, 46, claimed that after using Johnson’s Baby Powder for decades and inhaling asbestos particles within the product, he developed mesothelioma. The primary claims against J&J and their talc supplier Imerys Talc America is that the companies knew their cosmetic talc products contained asbestos, but failed to warn consumers and intentionally suppressed scientific research that showed asbestos was contained within their talc based products.
Suppressing adverse research findings and manipulating science related to discoveries that Johnson & Johnson products pose significant health risks are cornerstones of most litigation against J&J and its various medical products divisions, often resulting in much higher verdicts based on the intentional failure to warn and failure to disclose the dangers to consumers. Often the trial data shows that J&J had been aware of many dangers, as far back as the middle 1970’s, and yet they went to extraordinary lengths to suppress this information from being released to the marketplace and consumers.
J&J and Imerys defended against Lanzo’s mesothelioma claims by asserting that the his condition was caused by of exposure to asbestos from other sources, and that the talc used in J&J’s products never contained asbestos. During the trail Mr. Lanzo’s trial counsel described in detail, as well as by showing documents obtained from J&J and other legally accepted science and research sources, that talc and asbestos occur naturally together, and that J&J knew as early as the 1970’s that their cosmetic talc products contained asbestos.
Efforts to conceal this fact included J&J’s having paid respected medical, science and other prominent industry researchers to write and publish articles and research papers mitigating the adverse findings posted in independent journals alleging that asbestos was found in talc products. Trial testimony also showed that J&J had made multiple and unsuccessful attempts to remove asbestos from their talc products, dating back to the 1970’s, yet at trial they claimed there was no asbestos risk in their talcum powder products. With one defining trial comment being “Why do you try so hard to get it out, it’s because it is there” which would seem to define plaintiff claims that J&J was aware of the risks long ago.
J&J was defended by the Chicago firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP a highly respected and very aggressive defense firm, who are rather new to the J&J world of medical device litigation and were unsuccessful. They argued that any link between talc products and mesothelioma is based on the tried and sometimes untrue defense of faulty testing methods, and plaintiff claims of limited and outdated studies. Defense counsel even went so far as to state that Lanzo was exposed to asbestos in his childhood home and at school.
Defense claimed that J&J’s products never contained asbestos, and that they have performed careful testing to confirm that, which based on the jury verdict fell on deaf ears.
DOES J&J TALCUM POWDER CAUSE CANCER?
Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay nearly $1 billion in total damages after just five trials, alleging its baby powder is causing ovarian cancer, all jury verdicts have been in state courts in Missouri and California, see J&J Talc Trials St. Louis Missouri.
Talc, a mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen, is used extensively in cosmetics and personal care products. Women sometimes use talcum powder on their genital areas, sanitary napkins or diaphragms to absorb moisture and odor – contrary to the guidance of most physicians. (Asbestos, linked to lung cancer, was once an impurity in talc, but it has been banned for several decades.) J&J is notorious for using any means possible to influence scientific data and opinion,only as well as manipulating research reports and public media commentary by industry experts. The recent California trial showed payments made to previously perceived impartial Science Council members, who were declaring publicly that J&J talcum powder does not pose a cancer risk, the Los Angeles jury did not agree with J&J and other pro-talc defense team members, as over $300 million of the total $417 million judgment was for punitive damages, usually only awarded for intentional misconduct, see “New Evidence of Johnson & Johnson Bad Conduct Moved LA Jury to Award $417 Million Talc Verdict”.
SCIENCE SAYS TALC IS DANGEROUS
The debate over talc began decades ago. In the early 1970’s, scientists discovered talc particles in ovarian tumors. In 1982, Harvard researcher Daniel Cramer reported a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. His study was followed by several more finding an increased risk of ovarian cancer among regular users of talcum powder. Cramer, who at one point advised J&J to put a warning on its products, has become a frequent expert witness for women suing the company. J&J ignored and suppressed Mr. Cramer’s attempts to show them the study data, then publicly declared this research as flawed, which J&J still continues to this day.
His studies and the many others that have found a relationship used a case-control approach. A group of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer and a group without it were asked to recall their past diet and activities, and the results were then compared.
Critics say these kinds of studies have serious drawbacks, particularly “recall bias.” Women may forget what they did or, if diagnosed with cancer, might inadvertently overestimate their use of a suspect substance. People without a serious disease may be less motivated to remember details.
Three other studies – considered cohort studies – did not find any overall link. Unlike the case-control studies, these efforts began with a large group of women who did not have cancer and followed the progress of their health, with participants recording what they were doing in real time. The results of this approach, most scientists say, are stronger because they aren’t subject to the vagaries of memory.
One such study included more than 61,000 women followed for 12 years, as part of the National Institutes of Health’s well-respected Women’s Health Initiative.
WILL “MESOTHELIOMA TALC” BE THE NEW MASS TORT?
Two recent verdicts for asbestos contamination demonstrate the risk to cosmetic talc defendants. In October 2016, a Los Angeles County jury awarded $18M to Philip Depolian against Whittaker, Clark & Daniels finding it 30% responsible for his mesothelioma, due to his alleged exposure to various cosmetic talc products used at his father’s barbershops that contained asbestos. The jury apportioned liability against various cosmetic talc defendants that had settled and several other cosmetic talc product defendants that sold products including Old Spice, Clubman, Kings Men and Mennen Shave Talc.
In 2015, another Los Angeles jury awarded Judith Winkel $13M against Colgate-Palmolive for mesothelioma allegedly caused by exposure to talc in its baby powder. The jury rejected Colgate and its experts’ claims that the cosmetic talc at issue was not contaminated by asbestos and that the talc in question were non-fibrous “cleavage fragments” unlikely to be inhaled or embedded in the lungs. Although details of the trial are not readily verified, at least one report indicated that evidence presented at trial showed that the talc contained 20% asbestos fibers.
These cases are particularly important because the defendants were held responsible for cosmetic talc containing asbestos and for having caused mesothelioma and not ovarian cancer as in the J & J cases. Further, both juries found that the defendants acted with malice; however, the cases were confidentially settled before the respective punitive damage phases.
Who’s Liable if Industrial Talc Litigation Explodes
While the ovarian cancer cases have dominated the headlines, the cosmetic talc asbestos contamination cases may present the bigger risk to defendants and a much greater reward to plaintiff counsel. Thousands of companies used cosmetic talc in their products over the last hundred years. The entire population could claim exposure, especially to defendants that sold personal care products that could be ingested, inhaled or exposed via air-borne contact. The risk is that the cosmetic talc defendants become the defendant of last resort when a plaintiff has no other convincing credible sources of exposure to asbestos, especially when the original product source is now a bankrupt entity.
Science of Cosmetic Talc Claims: While it may be difficult to challenge long-established trigger approaches if a talc claim involves a claim of asbestos contamination, ovarian cancer talc claims may require a new look at trigger issues because the underlying science of how talc exposure may cause ovarian cancer is different from how asbestos inhalation damages the respiratory system. Having learned from previous trigger battles in asbestos, the insurers are likely to challenge the science that the first exposure to cosmetic talc causes injury that can be associated with the development of ovarian cancer and characterized as “bodily injury” as required in their policies. They may seek out scientific opinion that ovarian cancer caused by cosmetic talc is not progressive in nature, and thus not warranting the imposition of a continuous trigger. And, generally, the insurers will likely seek to limit the spread of potentially triggered policies to as few years as possible, and as close to the manifestation of the disease as possible.
Exceptional advancements in the science of diagnosing and predicting cancer in the last few years will provide plaintiffs, policyholders and insurers the opportunity to craft new trigger theories to their advantage and to circumvent past judicial decisions that were to their disadvantage. We have already seen the insurance industry using alleged advancements in asbestos science to attempt to limit the scope of historical “occurrence” policies. There is no insurance precedence with respect to trigger and talc ovarian cancer claims. Expect both sides to bring new experts and theories with respect to biologic and genomic issues, including molecular cancer experts opining about genetic alterations pre-existing before manifestation of a tumor. Resolution of these issues will be especially challenging because much less is known about females’ “defense systems” as opposed to airborne exposure through the lungs.
The science of ovarian cancer cosmetic talc claims is likely different from asbestos claims, but that will be a question for the experts and courts. Because plaintiffs will have an easy time in most cases demonstrating exposure to consumer products (e.g., for baby powder, theoretically from birth to present), both kinds of cosmetic talc claims generally would be linked together based on length and type of exposure.
Will “Talc Mesothelioma” be the next mass tort against Johnson & Johnson and its affiliates? Mass Tort Nexus will report on this as additional information becomes available.
The Stephen Lanzo case docket can be found under: Lanzo v. Cyprus Amex Minerals Co, et al., Docket No. L00738516 in Middlesex County Superior Court.