NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – A witness for Johnson & Johnson testified Tuesday in a lawsuit alleging the company’s baby powder caused a man to develop mesothelioma, saying the company never considered putting a warning label on their baby powder bottles.
“The company never considered (believed) there to be asbestos in the talc,” John Hopkins said.
Ricardo Rimondi and his wife Pilar are suing Johnson & Johnson claiming that the baby powder he used caused him to develop mesothelioma, a deadly disease of the linings of the lungs. The disease is incurable and fatal usually within a few years of diagnosis.
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.
Attorneys for the plaintiff with the Lanier Law Firm called as an expert witness Dr. David Brody, a professor of pathology at Tulane University to explain the nature of mesothelioma.
Using a slide presentation, Brody told a jury that asbestos fibers, to cause mesothelioma, must get past the body’s natural defenses to reach the pleura of the lungs. The defense mechanisms include the moisture and hairs in the nose, and cilia, hair-like structures in the lining of the windpipe designed to catch and expel foreign particles. The cilia beat in a wave-like action and cause foreign bodies to be swept up and then spat or coughed out, a process Brody likened to an escalator.
White blood cells called “macrophages” attempt to engulf and digest foreign particles, he says.
“What we see (in mesothelioma) are macrophages attempting to collect asbestos (fibers) and carry them up are dead or dying and become part of the disease,” Brody said.
Brody said fibers from minerals such as tremolite or chrysotile, if measuring a three-to-one ratio longer than they are wide, could qualify as asbestos.
“If an asbestos fiber gets into the lymph fluid it has access to the pleura (lungs),” Brody said. “When cells divide and are making new cells, we lose the protective membrane around the (cell) nucleus. If there’s any carcinogen in the cell, it has access to the DNA.”
Altering of DNA and uncontrolled cell division and growth is what causes mesothelioma, he said.
Defense attorneys questioned Brody on his qualifications.
“You haven’t done any studies that would tell you if Johnson & Johnson baby powder caused cells to change?”
Brody agreed he had not.
“You have not met Mr. Rimondi?”
“That’s correct,” Brody answered.
“You don’t know how he used the product?”
“You’re right,” Brody responded.
“You don’t know where and when he purchased it?"
“This is not what I’ve been asked to testify to,” Brody said. “My research has been related to what asbestos does.”
Hopkins appeared in the afternoon session. Considered the top corporate spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, he worked in research and development for the company from 1976 to 2000. Today he is a toxicologist who runs his own consulting firm in England, Innovant Research.
Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he received a pension from Johnson & Johnson.
“Yes,” Hopkins said.
“Do you have stock in J&J?”
“Yes, a small amount,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said he makes $300 per hour testifying in trials.
“Manipulating talc and (company) motives is what we’ll talk about,” the plaintiff's attorney said.
“I’m willing to listen,” Hopkins said.
“Is asbestos bad?” Hopkins was asked.
“It’s not good news,” he responded.
Hopkins was shown company product branding, documents boasting about “emotional trust” with the public.
“Only Johnson & Johnson has emotional trust with its consumer base, correct? Do you agree with that?” the plaintiff attorney referring to the company branding asked.
“It’s an opinion,” Hopkins said. “It’s not for me to agree or disagree.”
Hopkins was shown an inter-company memo to William Ashton, a director at Johnson & Johnson, apparently advising on how to handle health concerns about talc powder. “We should not rely on the clean-mine approach," the memo read. "We believe this mine (Vermont) to be clean.”
Johnson & Johnson received talc powder from mines in Italy, Vermont and more recently Korea.