New Brunswick, NJ - A New Jersey state court jury on Wednesday awarded $37.3 million to four plaintiffs claiming they developed mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos allegedly present in Johnson & Johnson’s cosmetic talc products, after the judge made the unusual decision to strike the company’s entire closing argument from the record.
The six-member jury began deliberations last Friday in the first consolidated talc/mesothelioma trial involving multiple plaintiffs to date. Only one other multi-plaintiff talc case has gone to trial, and that case involved ovarian cancer-related claims.
Deliberations began after Judge Ana Viscomi, who presides over New Jersey’s asbestos docket, decided to strike the closing argument by J&J attorney Diane Sullivan for making derogatory comments about the plaintiff attorneys in the case, including referring to them as “sinister.”
Sullivan, a partner with Weil Gotshal & Manges, immediately moved for a mistrial, prompting a response of, “Overruled, sit down,” from Judge Viscomi.
The full trial, including J&J’s struck closing argument, was video recorded and webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network. Video of the the trial, along with numerous other talc cases, is available to CVN Video Library subscribers.
A date for a second phase of the trial to determine punitive damages will be set sometime later in the Fall.
J&J spokesperson Jennifer Taylor said in a statement provided to CVN that it would pursue an appeal as soon as the final phases of the trial conclude, citing “egregious legal and evidentiary errors, including the inability to present key information to the jury and the striking of our entire closing argument.”
Taylor cited the more than a dozen motions for a mistrial made by J&J throughout the lengthy trial, repeated the arguments made by J&J’s attorneys that their cosmetic talc products never contained asbestos, and highlighted the company’s success in challenging cosmetic talc verdicts in appeals courts.
In a written motion for a mistrial following her oral motion, Sullivan accused plaintiff attorneys of making characterizations of opposing counsel far worse than anything J&J’s attorneys said, claiming the plaintiff team called the defense lawyers and J&J executives “liars” and “predators.”
The four plaintiffs are represented by Chris Panatier of the Texas-based firm Simon Greenstone Panatier, along with Moshe Maimon of the New York-based firm Levy Konigsberg, and the Chris Placitella of the New Jersey-based firm Cohen Placitella & Roth.
Maimon told CVN in an email after the verdict that J&J’s strategy is now to “attack the lawyers” instead of defending talc cases on the merits.
“As a credit to their diligence and commitment to their oaths, the jury saw through and ignored J&J’s repeated attempts to derail the trial of 4 terminally ill cancer victims by flouting the rules of court and orders of the judge,” Maimon said.
This is the fourth J&J cosmetic talc case to go to trial in a courthouse just miles from the company’s headquarters. Sullivan lead teams that secured defense verdicts at the previous two trials, though the first ended in a massive $117 million verdict, including an $80 million punitive damages award. Maimon served as co-counsel in that case.
All three previous New Jersey trials were also recorded by CVN.
The jurors in the current case awarded $7.25 million to Douglas Barden and his wife Roslyn Barden, $9.45 million to David Etheridge and his wife Darlene Etheridge, $14.7 million to D’Angella McNeill, and $5.9 million to William Ronning and his wife, Elizabeth Ronning.
All four plaintiffs claimed that years of inhaling asbestos supposedly present in popular products like Johnson’s Baby Powder caused them to develop mesothelioma, a lethal form of cancer often associated with asbestos exposure.
J&J vehemently argues their talc products never contained asbestos, and that these allegations are based on flawed science which the company has characterized as “attorney driven.”
J&J faces thousands of mesothelioma and ovarian cancer-related talc claims in state and federal courts throughout the country, and most of the J&J talc trials to date have been filmed gavel-to-gavel by CVN.
Two mesothelioma-related trials are currently in progress in California state court in Los Angeles, including a retrial of a case that ended in a hung jury last year that is being webcast live by CVN.
Meanwhile in Georgia state court in Atlanta, jury selection is underway in that state’s first cosmetic talc trial and the first ovarian cancer case since a trial last year in Missouri, which ended in a $4.7 billion verdict. The Georgia trial is also being filmed by CVN.
E-mail David Siegel at email@example.com