November 2017

In the first case of its kind to go to trial, a jury recently returned a defense verdict against a plaintiff who claimed that exposure to Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder caused her to develop mesothelioma.

The plaintiff, Tina Herford, filed suit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court and alleged that her exposure to asbestiform fibers, through the inhalation of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, caused her to develop mesothelioma. In seeking 24 million dollars in damages, Ms. Herford alleged that Johnson & Johnson was aware that its talcum-based products, and specifically its baby powder, were contaminated with asbestos, and that the company concealed this information from the public for approximately 100 years.

Johnson & Johnson presented expert testimony from an oncologist that the proximate cause of Ms. Herford’s mesothelioma was her exposure to radiation from treatments for an unrelated, prior cancer. Johnson & Johnson also denied that its talcum-based products ever contained talc contaminated with asbestos, and stated that Johnson & Johnson complies fully with FDA regulations and standards regarding its baby powder and other products, as well as industry standards established by the Personal Care Products Council (formerly the Cosmetic Toiletries Fragrance Association) for testing crude talc.

After two days of deliberations following a trial that lasted approximately four weeks, a Pasadena, CA jury returned with a verdict for Johnson & Johnson and its co-defendant, Imerys Talc America Inc. The jury rejected the Plaintiffs’ allegations that Imerys had supplied and that Johnson & Johnson sold talc which was contaminated with asbestos. The jury found that J&J did not negligently design or sell its talc products, that the talc product did not fail to perform as safely as a reasonable consumer would have expected, that the talc product was not defective, and that Johnson & Johnson did not fail to warn of any potential risks, “known or knowable based on general scientific knowledge at time of sale.”  As a result, the jury never reached the issue of causation.

The Herford verdict comes in the wake of two rulings which reversed plaintiff verdicts in cases in which plaintiffs had alleged that Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder had caused ovarian cancer: Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, JCCP4872, Superior Court of Los Angeles, in which a $417M verdict was overturned; and Fox v. Johnson & Johnson, ED104580, Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, where a $72-million verdict against Johnson & Johnson was thrown out.

There are currently more than 5,500 talc-related claims pending in state and federal courts in multiple jurisdictions throughout the United States. The Herford verdict is a reminder that reliable scientific evidence and facts, rather than rumors and rushed judgment, should decide these cases.
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This article is Part Five of our Medical Marijuana and the Workplace: Recent Decisions from New England Courts Provide Significant Protections to Medical Marijuana Patient Employees Five-Part Series. See Parts OneTwoThree and Four for reference.

A federal court in Connecticut has continued the recent trend of New England courts recognizing a cause of action under state law for patient-employees who are allegedly discriminated against due to their status as qualifying medical marijuana patients.  In Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co. LLC, No. 3:16-CV-01938(JAM), 2017 WL 3401260 (D. Conn. Aug. 8, 2017), the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut denied a motion to dismiss state law claims by an individual whose job offer was rescinded as a result of her testing positive for marijuana.  Connecticut enacted a medical marijuana act in 2012—the Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”), which allows the use of medical marijuana by “qualifying patients” with certain debilitating conditions and expressly prohibits discrimination against qualifying patients by schools, landlords and employers.  See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21-a-408p(b).

Plaintiff Katelin Noffsinger was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012 and became a qualifying patient under PUMA in 2015.  Thereafter, she was recruited for and offered the position of director of recreational therapy at a nursing facility in Connecticut in 2016, and immediately accepted the offer.

Prior to starting her employment, Ms. Noffsinger was advised that she would need to take a pre-employment drug test.  She informed a representative of the defendant employer that she suffered from PTSD and was prescribed medical marijuana as a qualifying patient pursuant to PUMA, and provided her employer with a urine sample for the drug test.  Plaintiff further advised that she only consumed a capsule of synthetic form of marijuana, Marinol, in the evening prior to bed, and that she would never be under its influence in the workplace.  The day before Plaintiff expected to start work, she was informed that the offer was rescinded based on the fact that she tested positive for the use of marijuana.

Plaintiff filed suit alleging three counts; namely, a violation of PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision; wrongful rescission of a job offer in violation of public policy; and negligent infliction of emotional distress.  The employer removed the matter to Federal court.  The employer’s main defense was that PUMA was preempted by federal statute; to wit, the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”).

The Court first addressed the employer’s preemption argument and its underpinnings in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The Court discussed four potential bases for federal preemption by Congress: (1) express preemption; (2) preemption where Congress has manifested an intent to occupy the bounds of a particular regulatory field (“field preemption”); (3) preemption of state law that stands as an obstacle to the objectives of federal law (“obstacle preemption”); and (4) preemption where compliance with both the federal and state law is impossible (“conflict preemption”).  The
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Since 2004, the Florida Supreme Court has examined a series of objections raised by defendants to avoid producing records of “adverse medical incidents.”  In each case, the Court has found that Amendment 7 to the Florida Constitution, which grants broad rights of record access to medical patients, abrogates any Florida statute that would otherwise prohibit discovery, including statutes that previously exempted from discovery any records of investigations, proceedings, and/or peer review panels. Undaunted, defendants have continued to object to Amendment 7 discovery requests, using new and refined theories in response to each court decision. On October 26, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court appeared to have put an end to many of these creative defense tactics in Edwards v. Thomas.

 

History of Amendment 7

In 2004, the citizens of Florida voted to amend the Florida Constitution to allow nearly unfettered access to records of “adverse medical incidents.” This amendment, commonly referred to as Amendment 7, entitles any patient to records related to a health care facility’s “medical negligence, intentional misconduct, and any other act, neglect, or default that caused or could have caused injury to or death of a patient.” The stated purpose of the amendment was to “lift the shroud of secrecy from records of adverse medical incidents and make them widely available” because such records “may be important to a patient.” Although a lawsuit does not need to be filed to access these records, the issue seems particularly germane in medical negligence actions.

Before Amendment 7, Florida statutory law prohibited discovery of records of adverse medical incidents, which gave defendant hospitals a distinct advantage over medical negligence plaintiffs. These records tend to shed light on what a defendant hospital knew about the qualifications of attending physicians, the adequacy of its policies and procedures, and its own analysis of the particular medical incident at issue. After Amendment 7’s enactment, extensive litigation has sought to define the amendment’s scope, primarily with regard to what health care facilities can withhold from requesting patients, culminating in the opinion in Edwards v. Thomas.

Florida Supreme Court’s Decision in Edwards v. Thomas

In Edwards v. Thomas, the Florida Supreme Court was asked to decide if records from external peer review reports are discoverable under Amendment 7, and what it means for documents to be “made or received in the course of business.” The defendant hospital had refused to produce external peer review reports at issue, maintaining “that certain requested records did not relate to ‘adverse medical incidents,’ were not ‘made or received in the course of business,’ were protected by attorney-client privilege, and were protected as opinion work product.”

The trial court granted plaintiff’s motion to compel the defendant hospital to produce specific reports listed in the hospital’s privilege log “relating to attorney requested external peer review.” However, the Second District Court of Appeal quashed, in part, the trial court’s order on the basis that the external reports were not “made or received in the course of business” per Amendment 7’s
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