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In the nation’s first trial where a jury linked Johnson & Johnson’s talc products to mesothelioma, the company’s efforts to discredit the plaintiffs’ evidence simply fell flat.
In a nine-week trial on claims that Stephen Lanzo III’s terminal illness was caused by his lifelong use of Johnson Baby Powder, J&J lawyers maintained that its products were safe and that lawyers for the plaintiff were mischaracterizing the evidence.
But in the end, jurors apparently found Lanzo’s theory of the case more compelling, awarding $30 million to Lanzo, 46, a father of three, and another $7 million to his wife. The jury apportioned 70 percent of the award to Johnson & Johnson, and 30 percent to co-defendant Imerys Talc America, which produced the raw ingredient in the company’s products. On Tuesday the jury is set to consider punitive damages.
One of Lanzo’s lawyers, Moshe Maimon of Levy Konigsberg in New York, told the jury in his closing argument of a 1969 company memo that was introduced into evidence. It said tests had found asbestos in the company’s baby powder and users would file lawsuits if the information became known publicly, according to Bloomberg.
“J&J knew almost 49 years ago there was asbestos in their talc,’’ Maimon said, according to a Bloomberg report. He said the company searched for ways to remove asbestos from talc and to make baby powder from other ingredients but ultimately dropped those ideas.
“The evidence will be that J&J had better choices. They could have informed the public of what they knew and left the choice to individuals,” said Maimon.
Johnson & Johnson maintained that the company’s talc products have never contained asbestos, while Maimon said at opening arguments that the talc mine in Vermont that was a longtime source of the company’s baby powder was known to contain asbestos since the early 1970s.
Michael Brock of Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., who represented Johnson & Johnson, said at closing that legitimate tests have never shown measurable amounts of asbestos in the company’s talc, and Lanzo’s mesothelioma came from other types of exposure, according to Bloomberg.
Lanzo’s attorneys twisted “themselves into pretzels” to show that Johnson & Johnson talc contained asbestos and that it had caused Lanzo’s disease, Brock said.
Brock also said the Montclair, New Jersey, home where Lanzo grew up had asbestos insulation around the pipes and the schools he attended underwent asbestos removal projects while he was attending.
The verdict disproves Maimon’s doubt, expressed at opening arguments, that jurors would be prepared to rule against Johnson & Johnson in its hometown. Brock, who followed that with a brief history of the company, which was founded in 1886, added, “It’s just beyond believable that the good people at J&J would ever sell a product that contained asbestos.”
Earlier in the trial, Lanzo’s attorneys called Jacqueline Moline, of the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research at Northwell Health, to support their claim that J&J’s baby powder and other products contained the asbestos that caused his mesothelioma.
In addition, Lanzo’s attorneys presented testimony from William Longo, an electron microscopist and expert in materials science, who testified that he found asbestos in more than half of the 32 samples of Johnson & Johnson talcum powder products that he tested.
Also testifying for Lanzo was James Webber, an environmental health consultant, who told jurors J&J’s talcum products contained asbestos. But lawyers for J&J, cross-examining Webber, asked why his report did not mention other tests which showed the company’s products were free of asbestos.
Jurors also heard expert testimony about a lymph node tissue sample that a plaintiffs’ expert found contained asbestos. A defense expert said the fiber could not have come from talc, which proves “beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Lanzo had exposure to asbestos in a way that could not possibly have emanated from J&J powder,” according to a report from Law360.
The plaintiffs’ team was composed of Maimon and Joseph Satterly of the California-based firm Kazan McClain Satterley & Greenwood.
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Charles Toutant is a litigation writer for the New Jersey Law Journal.
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