On October 4, 2023, the three-judge Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey threw out a $223.8 million verdict against Johnson and Johnson (J&J), finding that the science relied on by the plaintiffs was not sound. The 2020 verdict was originally awarded to four plaintiffs- D’Angela McNeill-George, Will Ronning, Douglas Barden and David Etheridge, each of whom alleged that their long-term use of asbestos-contaminated J&J talc products, such as Baby Powder and Shower To Shower, was the cause of their malignant mesothelioma.
J&J’s primary argument was that the trial judge, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Ana C. Viscomi, erred in admitting the testimony of three expert witnesses who attempted to establish that, similar to asbestiform fibers, non-asbestiform cleavage fragments could cause mesothelioma. Plaintiffs’ expert William E. Longo also estimated the respective plaintiffs’ total asbestos exposure by determining how often they used the product and extrapolating the data to come up with his result, a methodology the court determined was not supported by the scientific community.
J&J had filed motions before the trial started that were denied by Judge Viscomi, seeking to exclude the experts’ testimony. The jury that issued the original verdict in the consolidated case had awarded $37.2 million in compensatory damages and $750 million in punitive damages; under New Jersey law however, this amount was automatically reduced to $186.5 million.
These cases were part of the multidistrict litigation involving over 38,000 lawsuits brought by plaintiffs who claim asbestos in J&J’s talc products have caused their cancers, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Results in the trials so far has been mixed, with findings in favor of both J&J and the plaintiffs. This case represents the third time in three years that an appellate court has overturned a large jury verdict returned in favor of the plaintiffs.
J&J has maintained that its products are safe and are not contaminated with asbestos; the company’s worldwide vice president of litigation, Erik Haas, further stated after the court’s findings that the ruling reflects the rejection of junk science. In the 34-page decision the Appellate Court noted: “The trial court misapplied the well-established judicial gatekeeping procedures required by our courts and the error was not harmless in regard to the testimony…. (t)herefore, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”
Christopher Placitella, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, indicated that his clients would be seeking review by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
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