Johnson & Johnson, facing meso claim in New Jersey, points to plaintiff's childhood home, schools

By Glenn Minnis | Feb 7, 2018

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – Lawyers for a non-smoker who are alleging Johnson's Baby Powder created his mesothelioma will face a defense strategy that says the man's childhood home, as well as the schools he attended, could have caused the illness.

At New Jersey's first mesothelioma trial against the maker of Johnson's Baby Powder, it will also be debated whether Johnson & Johnson hid evidence the product is harmful and whether there is any link between talc and mesothelioma to begin with.

With a jury of seven women and two men, the full trial is expected to take up to two months and will be webcast and recorded by Courtroom View Network.

Moshe Maimon, a partner at Levy Konigsberg LLP in New York, told the Middlesex County Superior Court on Jan. 29 the company discovered in the 1970s that materials used in Johnson’s Baby Powder posed “a severe health hazard,” prompting the company to “try to remove, destroy and suppress the asbestos in the talc” it used for manufacturing.

Stephen Lanzo, 46, along with his wife Kendra, filed suit in 2016, alleging that after a lifetime of inhaling Johnson’s Baby Powder, the Verona, New Jersey, native was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014.

The suit names Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier Imerys Talc America as defendants and charges that they did not adequately warn consumers about potential risks associated with the use of the products in question.

“Stephen Lanzo’s mesothelioma was caused by asbestos and that will not be disputed in this cause,” Maimon told jurors. “No doctor will come into this court and tell you otherwise. There are always questions that are asked when a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma because it is known as a signal tumor. It points to its cause, because it’s so closely associated with asbestos exposure.”

Indeed, mesothelioma is frequently associated with shipyard workers or other industrial jobs, and Maimon told the court his client, a lifelong nonsmoker, has never worked in any occupation that would expose him to asbestos.

“There will be no evidence except the following: When Steve had his cancer surgery, they took out talc and asbestos particles found in his tissue,” said Maimon, adding in his opening remarks that the type of asbestos detected in his client’s samples matched the kind reported to be present in Johnson & Johnson’s talc products.

“It's a fatal cancer,” Maimon added. “In this case, the tragedy is that it was preventable.”

Representing Johnson & Johnson, Kirkland & Ellis' Robert Brock told the court that not only did the talc used by the company not contain asbestos, but the purported link between talc products and mesothelioma has proven to be based on faulty testing methods - a small sample size and studies now widely considered to be obsolete.

“The science doesn’t support it,” he argued in opening remarks for the defense, adding that Lanzo could have been exposed to asbestos in either his childhood home or at school.

Brock detailed for jurors how the Montclair home where Lanzo was reared as a child was the sight of an abatement in 2002 for basement pipes, and how his own brother has testified he grew up swinging from those pipes while still in his youth.

Brock added the middle and high schools that Lanzo attended have also undergone several rounds of asbestos abatement and that the northern New Jersey and Northern California areas he has called home over the years are both known for having high rates of asbestos.

“This is not a company that was sticking its head in the sand over this issue,” he said of the New Brunswick-based company named to Fortune’s 2017 list of Most Admired Companies.

He later added that the company has always fully adhered to asbestos-related guidelines put forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And yet, more than 5,000 talc-related claims have been filed against the company in recent years, most of them involving ovarian cancer plaintiffs that have led to payout verdicts ranging from $55 million to $417 million over the last two years alone.

In the first verdict involving a mesothelioma plaintiff, a Los Angeles Superior Court last November found in favor of Johnson & Johnson against Tina Herford, who was seeking $24 million in damages.   

The Lanzo trial, the first such case to feature a male lead plaintiff, is being overseen by Judge Ana C. Viscomi, who presides over the state’s centralized asbestos docket.

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