The closely watched first bellwether trial (Eva Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, Case No. BC628228), in California state court over claims of cancer caused by Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based products began on Monday July 10th in Los Angeles County Superior Court, in front of Judge Maren Nelson. The trail started following hearings last week over the admissibility of expert witness testimony and the judge’s summary judgment rulings. The first day of trial saw Judge Maren Nelson change her July 5th ruling that J&J talc supplier Imerys Talc America would be included in the trial, where last week she ruled that Imerys reliance on J&J to warn of “talc dangers” was a question of fact for the jury. Prior to the start of the trial on Monday July 10, 2017 Judge Nelson entered a ruling that Imerys is dismissed from the trial. How this ruling impacts J&J’s trial strategy on the first day of trial is unknown, but does direct trial focus entirely onto Johnson & Johnson .
Last week Judge Nelson held “Sargon” hearings, the California equivalent of a “Daubert” hearing where parties argue over which expert witnesses will be permitted to testify at trial and the scope of their testimony. Judge Nelson chose not to exclude any experts or their testimony, but these hearings do reflect the enhanced scrutiny by state court judges, as to expert testimony in talc cases pending in state courts of New Jersey, California, Missouri and Pennsylvania. These pretrial hearings can be as significant as the trials themselves, as proven last October when a New Jersey state court judge canceled the first talc powder trial there after refusing to permit testimony from experts for the plaintiffs over alleged causal links between talc and ovarian cancer. These are the same experts who testified in the recent St. Louis talc trials where verdicts in excess of $300 million have been returned in the last 2 years; however, on June 29th, Judge Rex Burlison (St Louis Circuit Court), granted J&J’s motion for a mistrial, the same day the US Supreme Court ruled on the California State Court Plavix litigation in Bristol-Myers v. Superior Court of California, in an 8-1 opinion, siding with Bristol-Myers and struck down a California Supreme Court ruling allowing out-of-state plaintiffs to join a mass action over the blood thinner Plavix. One of the deceased women in the St. Louis trial was a former Missouri resident, while the other had lived in Texas and Virginia. How the Plavix ruling affects the thousands of other pending cases in the California “JCCP Consolidated Case” docket remains to be seen.
The Bristol-Myers(Plavix) Supreme Court jurisdictional ruling has caused counsel for parties in state court medical device and pharmaceutical cases across the country to change strategy citing to the Plavix opinion as grounds to dismiss thousands of state court cases where plaintiffs are non-residents. The current J&J talc trial in front of Judge Nelson is excluded from the Plavix ruling as Plaintiff, Eva Echeverria is a California resident, who claims she developed ovarian cancer while living in the state after using J&J’s talc products since the 1950’s. Besides being the first state court talc trial outside of Missouri, Echeverria’s case will also highlight a new group of plaintiff attorneys, after the same team represented plaintiffs in each of the previous talc trials.
All the St. Louis talc trials were handled by out-of-state plaintiff firms (Alabama-based Beasley Allen and the Mississippi-based Smith Law Firm), Echeverria’s team consists entirely of local California firms, with Mark P. Robinson Jr. of Robinson Calcagnie as lead counsel and Kiesel Law LLP, Boucher of Boucher LLP, Girardi Keese as liaison counsel. Johnson & Johnson are represented by some of the same firms that represented the companies in St. Louis, like Shook Hardy & Bacon, which is headquartered in Missouri, J&J’s other defense firm, Ohio-based Tucker Ellis, is making its first appearance in a talc trial.
J&J counsel are expected to be extremely aggressive in their attacks on plaintiffs’ experts, the science they rely on and medical treatment testimony, especially in light of the recent J&J defense verdicts in the first 2 Xarelto bellwether trials in the Xarelto MDL 2592 (US District Court Eastern District of Louisiana), where both juries returned defense verdicts within 24 hours of the start of deliberations.
Mass Tort Nexus will be providing ongoing updates to the Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson trial as the develop.
The consolidated California cases are captioned Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Cases, number JCCP4872, and the bellwether case is captioned Eva Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, number BC628228, in the Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County.