Everything She Just Said Was Bullshit

At this point, most products liability lawyers have read about the New Jersey verdicts returned earlier this month against Johnson & Johnson in four mesothelioma cases.[1] The Middlesex County jury found that the defendant’s talc and its supposed asbestos impurities were a cause of all four mesothelioma cases, and awarded compensatory damages of $37.3 million, in the cases.[2]

Johnson & Johnson was prejudiced by having to try four cases questionably consolidated together, and then hobbled by having its affirmative defense evidence stricken, and finally crucified when the trial judge instructed the jury at the end of the defense lawyer’s closing argument: “everything she just said was bullshit.”

Judge Ana C. Viscomi, who presided over the trial, struck the entire summation of defense lawyer Diane Sullivan. The action effectively deprived Johnson & Johnson of a defense, as can be seen from the verdicts. Judge Viscomi’s egregious ruling was given without explaining which parts of Sullivan’s closing were objectionable, and without giving Sullivan an opportunity to argue against the sanction.

During the course of Sullivan’s closing argument, Judge Viscomi criticized Sullivan for calling the plaintiffs’ lawyers “sinister,” and suggested that her argument was defaming the legal profession in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.[3] Sullivan did use the word “sinister” several times, but in each instance, she referred to the plaintiffs’ arguments, allegations, and innuendo about Johnson & Johnson’s action. Judge Viscomi curiously imputed unprofessional conduct to Sullivan for referring to plaintiffs’ counsel’s “shows and props,” as a suggestion that plaintiffs’ counsel had fabricated evidence.

Striking an entire closing argument is, as far as anyone has determined, unprecedented. Of course, Judge Haller is fondly remembered for having stricken the entirety of Vinny Gambini’s opening statement, but the good judge did allow Vinny’s “thank you” to stand:

Vinny Gambini: “Yeah, everything that guy just said is bullshit… Thank you.”

D.A. Jim Trotter: “Objection. Counsel’s entire opening statement is argument.”

Judge Chamberlain Haller: “Sustained. Counselor’s entire opening statement, with the exception of ‘Thank you’ will be stricken from the record.”

My Cousin Vinny (1992).

In the real world of a New Jersey courtroom, even Ms. Sullivan’s expression of gratitude for the jury’s attention and service succumbed to Judge Viscomi’s unprecedented ruling,[4] as did almost 40 pages of argument in which Sullivan carefully debunked and challenged the opinion testimony of plaintiffs’ highly paid expert witnesses. The trial court’s ruling undermined the defense’s detailed rebuttal of plaintiffs’ evidence, as well as the defense’s comment upon the plaintiffs’ witnesses’ lack of credibility.

Judge Viscomi’s sua sponte ruling appears even more curious given what took place in the aftermath of her instructing the jury to disregard Sullivan’s argument. First, the trial court gave very disparate treatment to plaintiffs’ counsel. The lawyers for the plaintiffs gave extensive closing arguments that were replete with assertions that Johnson & Johnson and Ms. Sullivan were liars, predators, manipulators, poisoners, baby killers, and then some. Sullivan’s objections were perfunctorily overruled. Second, Judge Viscomi permitted plaintiffs’ counsel to comment extensively upon Ms. Sullivan’s closing, even though it had been stricken. Third, despite the judicial admonition about the Rules of Professional Conduct, neither the trial judge nor plaintiffs’ counsel appear to have filed a disciplinary complaint against Ms. Sullivan. Of course, if Judge Viscomi or the plaintiffs’ counsel thought that Ms. Sullivan had violated the Rules, then they would be obligated to report Ms. Sullivan for misconduct.

Bottom line: these verdicts are unsafe.

[1]  The cases were tried in a questionable consolidation in the New Jersey Superior Court, for Middlesex County, before Judge Viscomi. Barden v. Brenntag North America, No. L-1809-17; Etheridge v. Brenntag North America, No. L-932-17; McNeill-George v. Brenntag North America, No. L-7049-16; and Ronning v. Brenntag North America, No. L-6040-17.

[2]  Bill Wichert, “J&J Hit With $37.3M Verdict In NJ Talc Case,” Law360 (Sept. 11, 2019).

[3]  Amanda Bronstad, “J&J Moves for Talc Mistrial After Judge Strikes Entire Closing Argument,” N.J.L.J. (Sept. 10, 2019) (describing Judge Viscomi as having admonished Ms. Sullivan to “[s]top denigrating the lawyers”; J&J’s motion for mistrial was made before the case was submitted to the jury).

[4]  See Peder B. Hong, “Summation at the Border: Serious Misconduct in Final Argument in Civil Trials,” 19 Hamline L. Rev. 179 (1995); Ty Tasker, “Stick and Stones: Judicial Handling of Invective in Advocacy,” 42 Judges J. 17 (2003); Janelle L. Davis, “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Names Could Get Me a Mistrial: An Examination of Name-Calling in Closing Argument in Civil Cases,” 42 Gonzaga L. Rev. 133 (2011).

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