LOS ANGELES – A mineralogist appearing as a witness for Johnson & Johnson said he found no asbestos in the baby powder bottle used by Carolyn Weirick, while her attorney sought to portray him as a partisan, highly paid professional defense witness.
“Whatever you found, was it asbestos?” asked Warrington Parker the attorney for J&J.
“No, answered Dr. Matthew Sanchez, a mineral expert for R.J. Lee Group, a Pennsylvania-based lab that determines the components that make up rocks.
Sanchez said he had found in Weirick’s bottle primarily talc with small amounts of a mineral called chlorite and another called nahcolite (a sodium bircarbonate), with a trace of tremolite.
Weirick is suing Johnson & Johnson for the baby powder she claimed contained asbestos causing her to develop mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer in the lungs.
The trial in the Los Angeles Superior Court is being streamed courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
During Monday’s hearing Sanchez told a jury he studied mines in Italy and Vermont that supplied Johnson & Johnson with talc rock to be ground up in the creation of baby powder. He said no asbestos had been found in samplings taken from the deposits.
Sanchez visited the Italian mine site to make ore samplings. He did not visit mines in Vermont, but said his review of literature on findings was sufficient to determine Vermont talc was not conducive to the formation of asbestos.
Related minerals existing at the sites including tremolite and anthophyllite can contain asbestos, or can be found to be "non-asbestos" in nature.
“Anthophyllite by itself is not asbestos,” Sanchez maintained.
“Does tremolite mean asbestos?” Parker asked.
“No,” Sanchez answered.
Sanchez added that if tremolite contained asbestos it would be called "tremolite asbestos."
He disputed the talc testing and earlier trial testimony of star witness researchers for the plaintiff Dr. William Longo and Dr. Steven Compton of Georgia-based MVA Scientific Consultants.
“Compton said you reported things as cleavage fragments (non-asbestos rock particles) instead of asbestos,” Parker said. “What do you have to say about that?”
“I reported cleavage fragments because that’s what they are,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said Longo misidentified cleavage fragments as asbestos bundles and misclassified particle types.
Under cross examination, Jay Stuemke, Weirick’s attorney, asked if a test had shown a particle of anthophyllite in Weirick’s bottle.
“I agree there was an anthophyllite particle, but it was not consistent with asbestos,” Sanchez answered.
Stuemke asked if on a previous case, Sanchez had billed Johnson & Johnson $250,000 for testing of talc.
“Not just my test, that was the bill for a case,” Sanchez said.
“In your first three cases you billed $640,000, right?” Stuemke asked.
“I don’t know the number, but that sounds reasonable,” Sanchez said.
“You’ve been retained on 100 cases by Johnson & Johnson to give testimony like this?” Stuemke asked.
“That’s correct,” Sanchez replied.
“At $200,000 a case that’s $20 million in billings,” Stuemke said.
“It depends on the work I’m required to do,” Sanchez responded.
“That’s the math,” Stuemke said.
“Object!” the defense attorney called.
“Sustained!” Superior Court Judge Margaret Oldendorf said.
“You ply your services as a professional witness, correct?” Stuemke asked.
“I’m obviously here as an expert witness,” Sanchez responded.
“Your company R.J. Lee markets you as a professional witness, right?”
Stuemke said Sanchez's name appeared in an “Expert Asbestos Defense Witness Directory” and he had been asked to speak at a Defense Asbestos Litigation Seminar held in 2016 in Las Vegas.
Sanchez said he had been asked to give a pre-conference talk on the subject of talc, serpentine and amphibole minerals.
Steumke brought up a technology developed in the 1970s called “pre-concentration” that would allow greater detection of asbestos in talc. In prior talc trials, plaintiff attorneys alleged Johnson & Johnson officials did not use the more intensive screening process because it could result in asbestos discoveries and endanger their baby powder business.
“You said earlier it’s not necessary for concentration methods to be used,” Stuemke said. “In order to find asbestos contaminants in the talc. Do you recall that?”
“Yes I do,” Sanchez said.
“You know Johnson & Johnson was told exactly the opposite in the 1970s, correct?” Stuemke asked.
“I do not know that sir,” Sanchez replied.
Stuemke said the Colorado School of Mines at the time recommended to Johnson & Johnson using the concentration method in talc testing. He exhibited a 1973 letter to J&J officials stating concern that using the concentration technique for screening talc for asbestos might be “too sensitive.”
“If you’re trying to find something in material there is nothing that is really too sensitive is there?” Steumke asked.
Stuemke called it a business not a science decision.
“I can’t speak to the business decisions Johnson & Johnson made,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez called J&J’s testing methods “reasonable.”