NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – In the latest trial over an alleged link between baby powder and certain cancers, Johnson & Johnson says a law firm that previously won a $4.7 billion verdict against it is attempting to win over the jury by playing the proverbial "race card."
Opening arguments began Monday in a New Jersey lawsuit launched by a man claiming asbestos-tainted baby powder made by Johnson & Johnson caused him to develop mesothelioma. The suit brought by Richardo Rimondi, a father of five sons, alleges that asbestos in baby powder caused his mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the linings of the lungs that is incurable and usually fatal within a few years of diagnosis.
Coverage of the trial in the New Jersey Superior Court at the Middlesex County Courthouse is being streamed live on Courtroom View Network.
The trial is taking place a few miles from Johnson & Johnson’s corporate headquarters and is the first talc-mesothelioma trial for the Lanier Law Firm of Houston. The firm is representing Rimondi and won a $4.69 billion verdict against J&J last year in a trial in Missouri.
Thousands of cases against Johnson & Johnson alleging asbestos exposure are pending in courts. In New Jersey, plaintiff verdicts have been high. There have been verdicts of $117 million and $37 million.
In neighboring Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia judge recently dismissed a plaintiff's lawsuit after refusing to let her expert testify. Without experts to testify to a link between talc and asbestos-related cancers, plaintiffs' cases fall apart.
Dr. William Longo will be testifying for the plaintiff in the New Jersey case. He recently admitted to making $30 million through the years offering mostly pro-plaintiff testimony.
Most asbestos lawsuits brought by women plaintiffs have accused the baby powder maker of causing ovarian cancer. However, trials over the far rarer mesothelioma have increased in recent months.
Judge Ana Viscomi told a jury two previous co-defendants, mining talc suppliers Imerys Talc America and Cyprus Minerals, had been released from the trial. Imerys filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month under the weight of 15,000 lawsuits.
Plaintiff attorney Monica Cooper (Lanier Law Firm) told the New Jersey jury that people have to be more important than profits.
“The world stopped when the doctor told Mr. Rimondi 'you have cancer,'” she said. "There is no cure. It’s going to take his life. It’s not a matter of if, just when.”
Born in Peru in 1960, Rimondi had been involved in police work in that country before immigrating to the U.S., Cooper said.
“The evidence will show Johnson & Johnson is responsible,” she said. “The motive was money. There’s nothing wrong with money, but money can be the root of evil.”
Cooper described Johnson & Johnson as a billion-dollar, multi-national corporation and the baby powder that makes up 5% of the company’s business as its “golden egg,”
“There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos,” she said. “If there is any (asbestos) fiber, your body is going to respond to it.”
Courts around the country have not reached a consensus on that. Some states allow plaintiffs attorneys to argue every exposure is a contributing factor, while others require the exposure to be more significant.
Cooper said the company targeted African-Americans, Hispanics and overweight women for the baby powder product.
“They (J&J) knew corn starch could be a substitute (for talc), but it didn’t make as much money,” Cooper said. “If you’re going to be honest, you put a warning label on it and they didn’t.”
Morton Dubin, the attorney for Johnson & Johnson with the Orrick law firm in New York, said plaintiff attorneys were playing the “race card” by alleging the company targeted African-Americans and Hispanics.
Dubin called the allegations incredible.
“The facts are not as simple as ABC,” he said. “Johnson & Johnson has sympathy for the family, but that does not make this a valid case.”
Dubin said the company had exhaustively tested its product for decades both in-house and in outside labs.
“The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started testing it in the 1970’s, the Harvard School of Medicine and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), where they found no asbestos,” he said.
Dubin said the plaintiffs’ lawyers were trying to turn non-asbestos minerals into asbestos.
“Amphibole does not mean asbestos,” he said. “Tremolite does not mean asbestos.”
Tremolite, a mineral, can come in asbestos or non-asbestos form.
Dubin also indicated that a cleavage fragment, a piece of crushed rock that can look like an asbestos fiber, can be misidentified as such.
“Non-asbestos tremolite does not create asbestos, but plaintiff lawyers will call it asbestos,” he said.
Dubin said Johnson & Johnson had continually surpassed industry standards using outside lab testing such as the McCrone Group Lab in Illinois, which Longo had once called “the best in the country.”
Johnson & Johnson acquired its talc over the years from mines in Italy, Vermont and more recently China. Dubin said testing revealed no asbestos.
He took issue with Cooper’s contention the “concentration method” should have been used by J&J to test its talc.
“Concentration was rejected by the FDA,” Dubin said. “Low levels of chrysotile (asbestos-related mineral) could not be sufficiently concentrated using the float method.”
Dubin said baby powder does not cause mesothelioma.
“The people who mined the talc did not get mesothelioma,” he said.