Will Industrial Talc Litigation Become Another Asbestos? The Litigation Is Moving That Way!
By Mark A. York (May 24, 2018)
Is Industrial Talc Litigation The Next Major Mass Tort?
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) Johnson & Johnson lost another talcum powder cancer trial, when a California jury awarded $4 million in punitive damages on top of $21.7 million in compensatory damages on Wednesday May 23, 2018 to Joanne Anderson and her husband, Ms. Anderson is a 68-year-old woman who sued J&J alleging that he cancer was caused by asbestos in the company’s baby powder. The case is Anderson v. Borg Warner Corp., BC 666513, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (West Covina).
The jury found that J&J (JNJ.N), was 67 percent responsible for her mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Anderson’s lawyers said she was exposed to baby powder laced with the carcinogen when she used it on her children and while bowling.
The verdict against J&J was linked to company documents produced in the trial, “When jurors are given the opportunity to see internal documents and conduct of J&J — things the FDA and government haven’t seen — there is only one choice in how to rule.” According to Chris Panatier, plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Anderson and her husband had sued J&J, a unit of Imerys SA (IMTP.PA), Cyprus Amax Minerals, a unit of Brenntag (BNRGn.DE), Honeywell International (HON.N) and other local talc suppliers, which are now becoming targets more and more in the emerging talc litigation exploding across the country.
J&J’s lawyers have stated that Anderson’s mesothelioma may not have been caused by asbestos in talc, but could have occurred “spontaneously.’’ They also said the woman had a family history of lung and breast cancer. Even though there has been ample evidence shown in court after court, both state and federal that J&J’s talcum powder products are known to be cancer causing. J&J and others have been diligent in suppressing the research and scientific studies showing the cancer links, going so far as to pay “ghost writers” to submit company sponsored “talc is a good product” papers as legitimate scientific materials to recognize medical journals. This conduct dates back to at least the mid-10970’2 when internal J&J consultants working on Talc R&D projects raised red flags on the dangers of talc and the link to cancer.
Hiding Data That Showed Potential Dangers: The standard complaints utilized in the prior trial allege that J&J knew about the risks of ovarian cancer as early as 1971. The complaints allege that “nearly all” of 23 known epidemiologic studies on cosmetic talc reported an associated risk with ovarian cancer, and assert alleged instances in which J&J “knowingly released false information” about the safety of talc in coordination with the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association. Media reports suggest that, in post-trial interviews, jurors indicated that these allegations were part of the motivation for the large punitive damages award.
This is the second jury in less than two months to conclude J&J sold its iconic baby powder knowing it contained at least trace amounts of asbestos and posed a cancer risk to users. In April, jurors in J&J’s hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, ordered the company and a unit of Imerys SA, a talc supplier, to pay a total of $117 million to a banker who showed his cancer was tied to baby powder use. See For J&J $37 Million Talcum Powder Mesothelioma Verdict—Add $80 Million In Punitive Damages.
Litigation over J&J’s baby powder is accelerating. The company is facing claims by more than 9,000 plaintiffs, primarily connecting talc to ovarian cancer, according to a May 1 securities filing. J&J didn’t break out the number of ovarian cancer cases versus the number of mesothelioma cases allegedly tied to talc. See Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Litigation MDL 2738 (USDC New Jersey).
In MDL 2738 J&J is facing more than 6,000 cases claiming its baby powder caused ovarian cancer, but the talc litigation has taken a new focus in recent months with plaintiffs claiming the widely used product causes mesothelioma due to alleged asbestos contamination. These casese are being in in US District Court of New Jersey, in front of Judge Freda Wolfson, who has not been perceived as a plaintiff friendly judge so far. But science is science and as more of the data is released and becomes accepted, J&J’s home court advantage in New Jersey courts will continue to
J&J, talc supplier Imerys and retail seller incuding Rite-Aid pharmacy (RAD.N) are currently facing similar claims in a trial underway in South Carolina over asbestos talc allegations.
Anderson argued she used J&J’s talc products on her children in the 1970s and on herself in the 1980s and 1990s when she would powder her hands and feet while bowling. She claimed at one point, she went through two bottles a month.
Notable Cosmetic Talc/Asbestos Contamination Verdicts
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.
There are two types of talc: industrial talc which is used most frequently in rubber, plastics and ceramics; and cosmetic talc which is of a higher grade and is used in conjunction with products that involve direct human exposures such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food additives.
Talc manufacturers and companies that have incorporated talc into their products have been, and continue to be, sued. Industrial talc defendants have been involved in litigation for decades. In lawsuits involving industrial talc, plaintiffs generally allege that the talc is contaminated with asbestos. The injuries alleged are mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. To date, there have been no claims against industrial talc defendants alleging that asbestos in the talc caused ovarian cancer. Industrial talc defendants have aggressively defended the cases and, although suffering some adverse verdicts, they won more cases than they have lost. However, will thousands of new industrial talc claims result in acceptance of litigation and pressure to settle as a suddenly arising “cost of doing business’, such as the view taken by pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers who incorporate “litigation costs” into corporate filings and simply classify it as an expense of doing business?
Cosmetic talc cases fall into two distinct categories: 1) cosmetic talc alleged to cause ovarian cancer; and 2) cosmetic talc alleged to cause mesothelioma. The J & J verdicts were ovarian cancer cases. There was no claim that the talc was contaminated with asbestos.
While the J & J St. Louis verdicts received significant attention in the national media, cases alleging that asbestos-containing cosmetic talc caused an asbestos-related disease such mesothelioma have been percolating, and some recent notable verdicts have been obtained. In 2015, a Los Angeles jury awarded $13M to a woman who alleged talcum powder sold by Colgate-Palmolive was contaminated with asbestos causing her to contract mesothelioma. These cases, if they emerge as viable litigation, could make cosmetic talc defendants targets by substituting them for insolvent asbestos defendants and anyone else who may be named, which would present an extreme and unforeseen threat to cosmetic talc defendants and affiliated industry.
Cosmetic Talc Litigation – Ovarian Cancer
Cases alleging injury from cosmetic talc are relatively new, as best exemplified by the recent high-profile J & J verdicts. These cases did not depend on asbestos contamination, nor did they allege mesothelioma. Instead, they alleged that talc itself causes ovarian cancer. The ovarian cancer talc cases indeed represent an entirely new class of toxic product liability litigation. The approximately 14,000 ovarian cancer deaths a year, in conjunction with the widespread use of talc in everyday products such as baby powder, renders these cases a serious threat to certain defendants and their insurers.
According to the National Institute of Health, there are 22,280 new ovarian cancer diagnoses each year in the U.S. and 14,240 women die of the disease every year. This is seven times the number of annual mesothelioma diagnoses.
The American Cancer Society estimates that there are only 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses a year, with mesothelioma lawsuit filings being stable and not increasing. Like any other business, plaintiffs’ firms are always looking to maintain and grow revenue. Litigation against cosmetic talc defendants alleging ovarian cancer offers a way to substantially increase their bottom line. Indeed, “do you have ovarian cancer?” and “did you use talcum powder?” ads are commonplace on television.
Because everyone can credibly claim exposure to cosmetic talc, the primary issue that will be litigated is the science underlying the causal connection between talc exposure and ovarian cancer. While plaintiffs prevailed in the St. Louis actions, Imerys Talc and J & J persuaded a New Jersey trial court in 2016 to dismiss with prejudice two ovarian cancer cases after granting their motions to bar expert testimony due to inadequate science supporting their opinions. Apparently pressing their advantage, the defendants persuaded the federal talc MDL in New Jersey to conduct a “science day” in which the litigants would attempt to generally demonstrate that cosmetic talc does or does not cause ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs’ bar quickly responded with their own proposed “science day” in California state court, presumably where they perceive a jurisdictional advantage. The “science” of whether cosmetic talc causes ovarian cancer will be the field of battle on which the sustainability of these claims will live or die.
The sustainability of ovarian cancer talc cases will depend on how the courts resolve the science questions surrounding causation. This will depend in large part on the plaintiffs’ bar’s ability to persuade courts outside jurisdictions traditionally favorable to asbestos claimants of the merit of their claims.
Cosmetic Talc Cases Alleging Asbestos Contamination
In addition to the emergence of ovarian cancer cases, cosmetic talc defendants are also at risk of becoming responsible for mesothelioma cases alleging that their products were contaminated with asbestos. If plaintiffs can meet their burden of proving asbestos contamination in their products, the issue of product identification will largely be moot due to the ubiquitous use of talc in everyday products to which any plaintiff can presumably credibly claim exposure.
Allegations of asbestos contamination in talc have a long and disputed history. The FDA launched an investigation in 2010 based on reports that talc from South Korea and China contained asbestos. After extensive testing of various U.S. consumer products, the FDA found no asbestos contamination in the products. However, it described its results as inconclusive and only “informative” because it was unable to secure samples from all of the common talc suppliers.
The issue of whether cosmetic talc is contaminated by asbestos is disputed by the plaintiffs’ bar. The cosmetic talc defendants present an attractive target, especially given the declining pool of solvent asbestos defendants. In addition, while mesothelioma case filings have been relatively flat, the expected decline of mesothelioma claims has failed to emerge.
If mesothelioma cases do trend upward, plaintiffs’ lawyers will have additional incentive to identify new solvent defendants to satisfy the potential liabilities. Cosmetic talc defendants, generally not burdened by years of asbestos liabilities, make attractive defendants. In addition, because the traditional asbestos defendants that used and sold asbestos products have gone bankrupt, plaintiffs’ lawyers have increasingly struggled to demonstrate proximate cause against individual defendants and have been forced to make ever-more tenuous arguments that even de minimus exposures to asbestos caused their clients’ mesothelioma. The widespread use of cosmetic talc overcomes most traditional product identification, proximate cause defenses. Instead, the principal issue becomes only whether a particular product was contaminated with asbestos.
The plaintiffs’ bar will attempt to meet its burden of demonstrating asbestos contamination in cosmetic talc by arguing that traditional testing methods are not precise enough to detect it at low levels and that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. In previous cases, plaintiffs have employed experts to challenge defendants that maintained talc samples. As these cases are being litigated in the same jurisdictions that handle most asbestos cases, these allegations will be difficult for defendants to rebut.
Question: Will industrial and cosmetic “personal care” products made with talcum powder and the emerging confirmed links to “asbestos” and “mesothelioma” become the new long term mass tort resulting in thousands of complaints against nontraditional and unsuspecting defendants? Such as the Los Angeles County, California Superior Court lawsuits where a 2015 “cosmetic talc” trial resulted in an $18 million verdict award based on “cosmetic talc exposure in a barbershop” against Old Spice, Clubman, Kings Men and Mennen Shave Talc, as well as a prior 2015 trial verdict of $13 million against Colgate-Palmolive for exposure to talc in its baby powder.