Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson – Passing Talc Off As Asbestos

In talc exposure litigation of ovarian cancer claims, plaintiffs were struggling to show that cosmetic talc use caused ovarian cancer, despite missteps by the defense.[1] And then lawsuit industrialist Mark Lanier entered the fray and offered a meretriciously beguiling move: Stop trying talc cases and start trying asbestos cases.

The Ingham appellate decision this week from the Missouri Court of Appeals appears to be a superficial affirmation of the Lanier strategy.[2] The court gave defendants some relief on jurisdictional issues, but largely affirmed the admissibility of Lanier’s expert witnesses on medical causation, both general and specific.[3]

After all, asbestos is an established cause of ovarian cancer. Or is it?

In 2006, the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) addressed extra-pulmonary cancers caused by asbestos, without ever mentioning ovarian carcinoma.[4] Many textbooks and reviews found themselves unable to conclude that asbestos of any type caused ovarian cancer throughout the 20th century and a decade into the 21st century. The world of opinions changed, however, in 2011, when a working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met in Lyon, France, and issued its support for the general causation claim in a suspect document published in 2012.[5] The IARC has strict rules that prohibit anyone who has any connection with manufacturing industry from serving on its working groups, but the Agency allows consultants and contractors for the lawsuit industry to serve without limitation. The 2011 working group on fibers and dusts thus sported lawsuit industry acolytes such as Peter F. Infante, Jonathan Samet, and Philip J. Landrigan.

Given the composition of this working group, no one was surprised by its finding:

“The Working Group noted that a causal association between exposure to asbestos and cancer of the ovary was clearly established, based on five strongly positive cohort mortality studies of women with heavy occupational exposure to asbestos (Acheson et al., 1982; Wignall & Fox, 1982; Germani et al., 1999; Berry et al., 2000; Magnani et al., 2008). The conclusion received additional support from studies showing that women and girls with environmental, but not occupational exposure to asbestos (Ferrante et al., 2007; Reid et al., 2008, 2009) had positive, though non-significant, increases in both ovarian cancer incidence and mortality.”[6]

The herd mentality is fairly strong in the world of occupational medicine, but not everyone concurred. A group of Australian asbestos researchers (Reid, et al.) without lawsuit industry credentials published another meta-analysis in 2011, as well.[7] Although the Australian researchers reported an increased summary estimate of risk, they were careful to point out that this elevation may have resulted from disease misclassification:

“In the studies that did not examine ovarian cancer pathology, or confirmed cases of mesothelioma from a cancer or mesothelioma registry, misclassification of the cause of death in some cases is likely to have occurred, given that misclassification was reported in those studies that did reexamine cancer pathology specimens. Misclassification may result in an underestimate of peritoneal mesothelioma and an overestimate of ovarian cancer or the converse. Among women, peritoneal mesothelioma may be more likely to be classified as ovarian, colon, or stomach cancer, rather than a rare occupational cancer.”[8]

The authors noted that Irving Selikoff had first reported that a significant number of peritoneal cancers, likely mesothelial in origin, have been misclassified as ovarian cancers. Studies that relied upon death certificates only might thus be very misleading. Supporting the danger of misclassification, the Reid study reported that:

“Only the meta-analysis of those studies that reported ovarian cancer incidence (i.e., those studies that did not rely on cause of death certification to classify their cases of ovarian cancer) did not observe a significant excess risk.”[9]

Reid also reported the absence of other indicia of causation:

“No study showed a statistically significant trend  of ovarian cancer with degree of asbestos exposure. In addition, there was no evidence of a significant trend across studies as grouped exposure increased.”[10]

Other scientists and physicians have acknowledged the controversial nature of the IARC’s determination. In 2011, pathologist Samuel Hammar, who has testified regularly for the lawsuit industry, voiced concerns about the diagnostic accuracy of ovarian cancer cases in asbestos studies:

“It has been difficult to draw conclusions on the basis of epidemiologic studies of ovarian cancers because, histologically, their distinction between peritoneal mesothelioma and carcinomatous peritonei (including primary peritoneal serous papillary adenocarcinoma) is difficult. Ovarian tumors tend to grow by extension and uncommonly metastasize through the bloodstream, which is similar to tumors of mesothelial origin … .”[11]

In 2014, a working group of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health noted that “despite the conclusions by IARC and the support from recent studies, the hypothesis that asbestos is [a] cause of ovarian cancer remains controversial.”[12] The same year, 2014, the relevant chapter in a leading textbook by Dr. Victor L. Roggli and colleagues opined that:

“the balance of the evidence available at present does not support an association between asbestos exposure and cancers of the female reproductive system.”[13]

Two years later, a text by Dr. Dorsett D. Smith cited “the lack of certainty of the pathologic diagnosis of ovarian cancer versus a peritoneal mesothelioma in epidemiologic studies” as making the epidemiology uninterpretable and any conclusions impossible.[14]

Against this backdrop of evidence, I took a look at what Johnson & Johnson had to say about the occupational asbestos epidemiology in its briefs, in section “B. Studies on asbestos and ovarian cancer.”[15] The defense acknowledged that plaintiffs’ expert witnesses Drs. Jacqueline Moline and Dean Felsher focused on the IARC conclusion, and on studies of heavy occupational exposure. J & J recited without comment or criticism what plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had testified, much of which was quite objectionable.[16]

For instance, Moline and Felsher both reprised the scientifically and judicially debunked views that there is “no known safe level of exposure,” from which they inferred the non-sequitur that “any amount above ordinary background levels – could cause ovarian cancer.”[17] From ignorance, nothing derives but conjecture.

Another example was Felsher’s testimony that asbestos can make the body of an ovarian cancer patient therapy-resistant. In response to these and other remarkable assertions, J & J countered with only the statement that their expert witness, Dr. Huh, “did not agree that all of this was true in the context of ovarian cancer.”[18]

Huh, indeed; that the defense expert witness disagree with some of what plaintiffs’ witnesses claimed hardly frames an issue for exclusion of any expert witness’s opinion. Even more disturbing, there is no appellate point that corresponds to a motion to exclude Dr Moline’s testimony.

The Egilman Challenge

There was a challenge to the testimony of another expert witness, David Egilman, a frequent testifier for Mark Lanier and other lawsuit industrialists. One of the challenges that the defendants made on appeal to the admissibility of Dr. David Egilman’s testimony was his use of a 1972 NIOSH study that apparently quantified exposure in terms of fibers per cubic centimeter, without specifying whether all fibers in the measurement were asbestos fibers, as opposed to non-asbestos fibers, including talc fibers.

The Missouri Court of Appeals rejected this specificc challenge in part because Egilman had explained that:

“whether the 1972 NIOSH study identified fibers specifically as ‘asbestos’ was inconsequential, as the only other possible fiber that could be present in a talc sample is a ‘talc fiber, which is chemically identical to anthophyllite asbestos and structurally the same’.”[19]

Talc typically crystallizes in small plates, but it can occur occasionally as fibers. Egilman, however, equated a talc fiber as chemically and structurally identical to an anthophyllite fiber.

Does Egilman’s opinion hold water?

No, Egilman has wet himself badly (assuming the Missouri appellate court quoted testimony accurately).

According to the Mineralogical Society of America’s Handbook of Mineralogy (and every other standard work on mineralogy I reviewed), anthophyllite and talc, whether in fibrous habit or not, are two different minerals, with very different chemical formulae, crystal chemistry, and structure.[20] Anthophyllite has the chemical formula: (Mg;Fe2+)2(Mg;Fe2+)5Si8O22(OH)2 and is an amphibole double chain silicate. Talc, on the other hand, is a phyllosilicate, a hydrated magnesium silicate with the chemical formula Mg3Si4O10(OH)2. Talc crystallizes in the triclinic class, although sometimes monoclinic, and crystals are platy and very soft.

If the Missouri Court of Appeals characterized Egilman’s testimony correctly on this point, then Egilman gave patently false testimony. Talc and anthophyllite are different chemically and structurally.

[1]  SeeThe Slemp Case, Part I – Jury Verdict for Plaintiff – 10 Initial Observations”; “The Slemp Case, Part 2 – Openings”; “ Slemp Trial Part 3 – The Defense Expert Witness – Huh”; “Slemp Trial Part 4 – Graham Colditz”; “ Slemp Trial Part 5 – Daniel W. Cramer”; “Lawsuit Magic – Turning Talcum into Wampum”; “Talc Litigation Supported by Slippery Expert Witness” (2017).

[2]  Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (June 23, 2020) (Slip op.).

[3]  Cara Salvatore, “Missouri Appeals Court Slashes $4.7B Talc Verdict Against J&J,” Law360 (June 23, 2020).

[4]  Jonathan M. Samet, et al., Asbestos: Selected Cancers Effects (I.O.M. Committee on Asbestos 2006).

[5]  International Agency for Research on Cancer, A Review of Human Carcinogens, Monograph Vol. 100, Part C: Arsenic, Metals, Fibres, and Dusts (2012).

[6]  Id. at 256. Some members followed up their controversial finding with an attempt to justify it with a meta-analysis; see M. Constanza Camargo, Leslie T. Stayner, Kurt Straif, Margarita Reina, Umaima Al-Alem, Paul A. Demers, and Philip J. Landrigan, “Occupational Exposure to Asbestos and Ovarian Cancer: A Meta-analysis,” 119 Envt’l Health Persp. 1211 (2011).

[7]  Alison Reid, Nick de Klerk, and Arthur W Musk, “Does Exposure to Asbestos Cause Ovarian Cancer? A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis,” 20 Cancer Epidemiol., Biomarkers & Prevention 1287 (2011) [Reid].

[8]  Reid at 1293, 1287.

[9]  Id. at 1293.

[10]  Id. at 1294.

[11]  Samuel Hammar, Richard A. Lemen, Douglas W. Henderson & James Leigh, “Asbestos and other cancers,” chap. 8, in Ronald F. Dodson & Samuel P. Hammar, eds., Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects 435 (2nd ed. 2011) (internal citation omitted).

[12]  Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Asbestos, Asbestosis and Cancer – Helsinki Criteria for Diagnosis and Attribution 60 (2014) (concluding that there was an increased risk in cohorts of women with “relatively high asbestos exposures”).

[13]  Faye F. Gao and Tim D. Oury, “Other Neoplasia,” chap. 8, in Tim D. Oury, Thomas A. Sporn & Victor L. Roggli, eds., in Pathology of Asbestos-Associated Diseases 177, 188 (3d ed. 2014).

[14]  Dorsett D. Smith, The Health Effects of Asbestos: An Evidence-based Approach 208 (2016).

[15]  Brief of Appellants Johnson & Johnson and Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., at 29, in Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (filed Sept. 6, 2019) [J&J Brief].

[16]  Id. at 30.

[17]  See Mark A. Behrens & William L. Anderson, “The ‘Any Exposure’ Theory: An Unsound Basis for Asbestos Causation and Expert Testimony,” 37 SW. U. L. Rev. 479 (2008); William L. Anderson, Lynn Levitan & Kieran Tuckley, “The ‘Any Exposure’ Theory Round II — Court Review of Minimal Exposure Expert Testimony in Asbestos and Toxic Tort Litigation Since 2008,” 22 Kans. J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 1 (2012); William L. Anderson & Kieran Tuckley, “The Any Exposure Theory Round III: An Update on the State of the Case Law 2012 – 2016,” Defense Counsel J. 264 (July 2016); William L. Anderson & Kieran Tuckley, “How Much Is Enough? A Judicial Roadmap to Low Dose Causation Testimony in Asbestos and Tort Litigation,” 42 Am. J. Trial Advocacy 38 (2018).

[18]  Id. at 30.

[19]  Slip op. at 54.

[20]  John W. Anthony, Richard A. Bideaux, Kenneth W. Bladh, and Monte C. Nichols, Handbook of Mineralogy (Mineralogical Soc’y of America 2001).

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