Lawsuit Magic – Turning Talcum into Wampum

Last week, a Los Angeles jury, with little prior experience in giving away other people’s money, awarded Eva Echeverria $417,000,000 dollars, in compensatory and punitive damages.1 Pundits in the media, and from both sides of the bar, including your humble blogger, jumped in to offer their speculation about the cause of profligacy.2

In speaking to one reporter, I described the evidence against Johnson & Johnson in an earlier trial (Slemp) as showing that the company needed to engage more fully with the scientific evidence, and not reduce complex evidence to sound bites. Alas, no good deed goes unpunished; my comments were reduced to sound bites! The reporter quoted me in part as having said that the case was a tough one for the defense, but left out that I thought the case was tough because the defense will have a difficult time educating judges and juries in the scientific methods and judgment needed to reach a sound conclusion. The reporter suggested that I had opined that the evidence against J & J was “compelling,” when I had suggested the evidence was confounded and biased, and that J & J needed to take greater care in addressing study validity.3

Perhaps more interesting than my speculation is the guesswork of the plaintiffs’ counsel, who has had more experience with conjecture than I will ever enjoy. In an interview with an American Law Media reporter4, Allen Smith offered his view that three “new” pieces of evidence explain the Los Angeles hyper-verdict:

1. evidence that other companies selling consumer talcum power have begun to place ovarian cancer warnings on their packaging, within the few months;

2. evidence that two persons involved in the Cosmetic Industry Review, which has concluded that talcum powder is safe, had received payments from Johnson & Johnson for speaking engagements; and

3. evidence that Douglas Weed, a former National Cancer Institute epidemiologist, who testified for Johnson & Johnson as an expert witness in the Echeverria case, had been sanctioned in another, non-talc case in North Carolina, for lying under oath about whether he had notes to his expert report in that other case.

Smith claimed that the new evidence was “very compelling,” especially the evidence that Johnson & Johnson had presented “unbelievable and non-credible witnesses on an issue so important like this.”

Now, Smith was trial counsel. He was intimately involved in presenting the evidence, and in watching the jurors’ reactions. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that these three “bits” explain the jury’s extravagance.

The first “bit” seems completely irrelevant. The fact of another company’s having warned within months of the trial, and years after the plaintiff was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, suggests that the evidence was inflammatory without having any probative value. Feasibility of warning was not an issue. State of the art was an issue. In the Slemp trial, Graham Colditz testified that he had had his epiphany that talc causes ovarian cancer only two years ago, when he was instructed by plaintiffs’ counsel to formulate an opinion on the causal claim. That another company recently placed a warning to ward off the lawsuit industry is hardly evidence of industry or governmental standard. All that can really be said is that some companies have been bullied or scared into warnings by the Lawsuit Industry, in the hopes of avoiding litigation. Indeed, it is not at all clear how this bit of irrelevancy was admitted into evidence. All in all, this evidence of a recent warning, years after the plaintiff’s use of the defendant’s talcum powder seems quite out of bounds.

The second bit was simply more of the same inflammatory, scurrilous attacks on Johnson & Johnson. Having watched much of the Slemp trial, I can say that this was Allen Smith’s stock in trade. From media reports, he seemed to have succeeded in injecting his personal attacks on the most peripheral of issues into the Echeverria trial. Not everything in Slemp was collateral attack, but a lot was, and much of it was embarrassing to the legal system for having tolerated it.

The third bit of evidence about Dr. Weed’s having been sanctioned was news to me. A search on Westlaw and Google Scholar failed to find the sanctions order referred to by plaintiffs’ counsel. If anyone is familiar with the North Carolina case that gave rise to the alleged court sanction, please send me a copy or a citation.


1 Daniel Siegal, “J&J Hit With $417M Verdict In 1st Calif. Talc Cancer Trial,” Law360 (Aug. 21, 2017). The case was Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, case no. BC628228, Los Angeles Cty. Superior Court, California.

2 See Daniel Siegal, “Science No Salve For J&J In Talc Cases, $417M Verdict Shows,” Law360, Los Angeles (Aug. 22, 2017). See also Margaret Cronin Fisk & and Edvard Pettersson, “J&J Loses $417 Million Talc Verdict in First California Case,” Bloomberg News (Aug. 21, 2017).

3 Tina Bellon, “Massive California verdict expands J&J’s talc battlefield,” Reuters (Aug. 22, 2017); Tina Bellon, “Massive California verdict expands J&J’s talc battlefield,” CNBC (Aug. 22, 2017); Tina Bellon, “J&J’s talc woes expand with massive California verdict,” BNN Reuters (Aug. 22, 2017).

4 Amanda Bronstad, “New Evidence Seen as Key in LA Jury’s $417M Talc Verdict,” Law.com (Aug. 22, 2017).

Comments are closed.