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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In a recent decision, Lopez v. Friant., 2017 WL 2451126, the California First District Court of Appeal provided guidance as to the meaning of the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA.  The Lopez ruling reversed an Alameda County trial court’s ruling, which had granted summary judgment in favor of defendant-employer Friant & Associates on the grounds that plaintiff had failed to establish a knowing or intentional failure to include required information on itemized wage statements. The Court found that when a cause of action is brought under PAGA for civil penalties based on an underlying Labor Code violation requiring “injury” and “intent,” the plaintiff is not required to make a showing of those requirements. Rather, the Court found that a plaintiff may prevail merely by showing that the employer failed to make the required disclosure. By raising this disclosure omission under PAGA, rather than through a cause of action under the underlying statute, the plaintiff effectively circumvented the requirements of proving “injury” and a “knowing and intentional” violation. The Court’s opinion includes a discussion of the plain language of each statute, as well as their legislative histories. The decision exemplifies California courts’ willingness to allow wage and hour violation claims to proceed past the summary judgment stage, which could make it difficult for employers to dispose of cases early through dispositive motions.

In Lopez, plaintiff Eduardo Lopez  brought a lawsuit against employer Friant & Associates raising a single cause of action: a PAGA cause of action based on an alleged underlying Labor Code violation under Section 226(a)(7), which requires an employer to provide itemized wage statements that include the last four digits of an employee’s social security number. Section 226 independently authorizes a civil cause of action for aggrieved employees, and Section 226(e)(1) stipulates that the prerequisites for prevailing under this section include a showing of injury arising from a “knowing and intentional” violation of the Section.

At the summary judgment stage, employer Friant argued that plaintiff had failed to present a triable issue of material fact as to the requirements of injury and intent. The Alameda County trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Friant. On appeal, however, the First District Court of Appeal found that, while the civil cause of action authorized under Section 226 requires a showing of injury and knowing and intentional violation, the PAGA cause of action is separate and independent, and does not require a plaintiff to make this showing. The parties stipulated during litigation that Friant had issued 5,776 itemized wage statements to the plaintiff and other employees that failed to include such information. Accordingly, the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment because a triable issue of material fact existed.

The Court’s most significant discussion focuses on how to interpret the law when a plaintiff raises a PAGA-authorized claim based on an underlying Labor Code violation, such as 226, which authorizes its own cause of action with attendant elements. In reaching the conclusion that PAGA
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This article is Part Two of our Medical Marijuana and the Workplace: Recent Decisions from New England Courts Provide Significant Protections to Medical Marijuana Patient Employees Five-Part Series. Read Part One here.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Barbuto marks a significant departure from case law arising under the medical marijuana laws of other states, and in particular, the way in which other courts have interpreted conflicting federal law related to the possession, use, cultivation or sale of marijuana.

The Federal Controlled Substances Act (“FFCSA”) prohibits any and all use of marijuana.  See 21 U.S.C. §§ 802(16), 812(c), 844(a) (defining marijuana, classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and prohibiting possession of controlled substances, which includes all Schedule I drugs).  All elements of marijuana are encompassed within the FCSA’s definition of marijuana.  See 21 U.S.C. § 802(16) (“The term ‘marihuana’ means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin. Such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.”).  Significantly, the FCSA does not provide an exception for the use of medical marijuana or medical marijuana derivatives. Ergo, the use of medical marijuana and all associated materials, in any form whatsoever, are illegal under federal law.  See 21 U.S.C. §§ 802(16), 812(c), 844(a) (defining marijuana, classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and prohibiting possession of controlled substances for all Schedule I drugs).

The FCSA’s blanket proscription of marijuana also carries over to federal disability law. The FCSA precludes employees (regardless of whether they are qualifying medical marijuana patients under state law) from commencing discrimination claims under federal law for adverse actions taking by employers as a result of medical marijuana use.  See 42 U.S.C. § 12210(a) (2012) (“For purposes of this chapter, the term ‘individual with a disability’ does not include an individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, when the covered entity acts on the basis of such use.”); see also 21 U.S.C §§ 802(16), 812(c), 844(a) (establishing illegality of marijuana in any form).  If not for this clear federal embargo on such claims, employees would most likely seek relief through the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(B) (2012) (creating private cause of action arising under federal law for an individual with a disability who is denied “employment opportunities and is an otherwise qualified individual”).

The ADA provides a federal claim for disabled employees who are discriminated against in their place of employment because of a disability.  See 42 U.S.C. § 12102 (2012) (defining “disability” as
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Defendant The Raymond Co. saw its summary judgment victory overturned by California’s 4th District Court of Appeal in a surprising turn of events in its ongoing product liability case in San Diego Superior Court. In its July 2017 decision, the 4th District held that The Raymond Co. failed to meet its burden to show that the risk-benefit test applied to dismiss the claims made by plaintiffs Sandra and Kawika Demara.

The Demaras filed their lawsuit initially when Mr. Demara allegedly sustained injuries in 2011 as a result of alleged design defects in one of Raymond’s forklifts being operated at a warehouse in Carlsbad, California. According to their complaint, the Demaras alleged that a Raymond 7400 series forklift was backing up, changing direction, and turning, when the drive wheel ran over Mr. Demara’s foot and crushed it. The Demaras alleged in their complaint that Mr. Demara did not see the forklift or its warning light. As a result, he had to have multiple surgeries on his foot and remains permanently disabled with pain. In a single cause of action for products liability, the Demaras alleged strict liability on claims for defects in the design, manufacture, and warnings, and one claim for general negligence.

The San Diego Superior Court trial judge had previously granted Raymond’s summary judgment by deciding that the Damaras failed to raise a triable issue of material fact as to the issue of causation. The trial court also rejected the argument that the consumer expectation test ought to be applied as a matter of law and that even assuming the Demaras had raised a triable issue, Raymond had sufficiently applied the necessary elements of the risk-benefit test.

Rejecting the lower court’s ruling, 4th District Presiding Justice Judith McConnell concluded that the trial court’s conclusions were incorrect because the Demaras’ causation evidence was ample enough to defeat Raymond’s summary judgment motion. McConnell ruled that “in applying the risk-benefit test, [Raymond] failed to present sufficient evidence to shift the burden to plaintiffs to show a triable issue of material fact.”

The 4th District cited to the decision in Campbell v. GM Corp., (1982) 32 Cal.3d 112 for the general rule that under the consumer expectation test and the risk-benefit test, to prove a design defect claim, the plaintiff must show that the product at issue failed to perform safely and that this failure played a substantial role in causing the harm. Raymond’s summary judgment motion hinged on the argument that the Demaras failed to show that the design of the forklift played a substantial role in causing Mr. Demara’s injury. According to Justice McConnell, however, “[Raymond] presented neither evidence nor inferences from evidence to suggest that the design was not a substantial factor in bringing Demara’s injury.”

Justice McConnell went on further to state  “because the Defendants’ statement that the occurrence of the accident was not evidence of a defect that caused Plaintiff’s injuries is not a prima facie showing that Plaintiffs cannot prove causation,
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A new wave of lawsuits alleging an association between ovarian cancer and the use of talcum powder for feminine hygiene purposes – a claim that many believe is based on questionable science – has hit an all-time high.  Last week, a Los Angeles jury returned a verdict against Johnson & Johnson in the amount of $417 million ($70 million in compensatory damages, $347 million in punitive damages), finding that there was a connection between Plaintiff Eva Echeverria’s ovarian cancer and Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder product.  Plaintiff, a California resident, claimed she developed ovarian cancer as a result of her use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder over many years, and alleged that Johnson & Johnson had internal knowledge for decades of scientific studies that demonstrated that the use of talc could cause cancer.

In support of this allegation, Plaintiff’s lawyers presented to the jury a 1982 study suggesting that women who used baby powder – which is mainly comprised of talc – were at a 92% increased risk for ovarian cancer.  Plaintiff’s lawyers also claimed that the lead researcher for that study advised Johnson & Johnson about the study, and suggested that the company should place a warning label on their product, but Johnson & Johnson refused.  In its defense, Johnson & Johnson took issue with the 1982 study, and argued that talc is inherently safe, analogizing talc to red meat and alcohol – neither of which require warnings.

Much of the controversy surrounding this new litigation stems from the science lawyers representing plaintiffs are using to support their claims.  Johnson & Johnson argued during trial that the scientific studies on which Plaintiff relied upon are flawed and “made-for-litigation.”  Specifically, many studies supporting the association between ovarian cancer and talc are based on interviews conducted on women already diagnosed with ovarian cancer, asking them to remember whether they ever used talcum powder; accordingly, such studies run the risk of promoting inaccurate recollection.

Epidemiologist Jack Siemiatycki, who testified on behalf of Plaintiffs, stated that it is “more likely than not that talc can cause ovarian cancer.”  Additionally, Laura Plunkett, a pharmacologist and toxicologist hired by Plaintiffs, opined that talc is toxic, and when used on a woman’s lower extremities, can cause ovarian cancer by migrating into the ovaries and causing chronic inflammation, which worsens even from small applications over long periods of time.

Johnson & Johnson argued that Plaintiff’s experts base their assertions on unreliable studies, citing to a 2000 cohort study by researchers at Harvard University, in which they concluded that there was “no overall association” between talc and “epithelial ovarian cancer.”  In that study, out of the 78,630 women that stated they used talcum powder products, 307 of them were eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  While the study did state that there was a “modest elevation in risk” for one variety of the disease – invasive serous ovarian cancer – the report concludes that the “results provide little support for any substantial association between
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