Star defense witness disputes J&J failed to live up to zero asbestos tolerance policy

By John Sammon | Jan 29, 2019

ALAMEDA – John Hopkins, a British researcher identified as the top corporate spokesman for Johnson & Johnson even though he has not been with the company in nearly 20 years, on Monday disputed a contention from the attorney for plaintiff Terry Leavitt that the baby-powder maker failed to obey a zero-asbestos tolerance policy.

Moshe Maimon with the law firm of Levy Konigsberg produced a document from 1974 in which officials of Johnson & Johnson pledged to withdraw the baby powder product from the market if questions of safety arose.

“Johnson & Johnson will not hesitate,” the letter said.

“Were you aware of that policy?” Maimon asked.

“I’ve never seen it written as a company policy,” Hopkins said. “A policy is written; no I’m not aware of it.”

The trial now in its fourth week is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson and its mining company supplier Imerys Talc America for the asbestos in baby powder she claimed caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare and fatal form of cancer of the lungs.

Hopkins, a biochemist and toxicologist served as a research and development officer for J&J from 1976 to 2000, and today runs consultancy firm Innovant Research. Plaintiff attorneys in past talc trials have sometimes criticized the company for not producing defense witnesses currently with Johnson & Johnson.

Maimon exhibited for the jury a document in which J&J officials answered an interlocutory request for written testimony in May of 2000.

Asked to describe in detail the process of eliminating the existence of asbestos in the baby powder, the J&J responder said the company employed outside testing labs over a number of years and added, “To the best of our knowledge, the baby powder product contained no cancer-causing asbestos.”

However, Maimon maintained trace amounts of tremolite, an asbestos-related mineral, had made its way into the final baby powder product. 

“The response to the best of the defendant’s knowledge was that talc used in Johnson & Johnson products never contained asbestos or tremolite,” he said. “We know in looking at these documents this is not truthful, correct? You’ll agree this is not truthful?”

“To the best of her (J&J official) knowledge, this is what she said,” Hopkins conceded. “That was her statement.”

“You did not (personally) test talc for Johnson & Johnson, correct?” Maimon asked.

“Correct,” Hopkins said.

“You did not send out talc samples for outside testing?”

“Correct.”

Hopkins said he was not a microscope researcher but perused toxicology reports often made for the company by outside labs.

He added that neither was he involved in the mining operations that provided the talc powder from mines in Vermont, Italy and more recently Korea, and did no research on corn starch. Plaintiff attorneys have maintained corn starch was safe and Johnson & Johnson should have used it in the baby powder instead of talc.

J&J first offered corn starch in its baby powder in 1979, but never abandoned its talc product.

Part of Maimon’s questioning concerned the amount of money Hopkins was being paid as a defense witness. The attorney recited a list of billings charged to Johnson & Johnson for monthly services many in the $20,000 range and what he said totaled more than $400,000 over the past five years.

“The truth is I charge for multiples,” Hopkins said. “This includes airfare and hotel and it’s not inexpensive. It’s added on. It’s not just money to me. Its reimbursing my hotel and other costs.”

Maimon produced a document dated 1969, a company letter directed to a doctor T.M. Thompson that predicted possible legal liability from the J&J talc product.

“It is not inconceivable,” the letter stated, “we could be involved in litigation in which pulmonary fibrosis or other change might be rightfully or wrongfully attributed to inhalation of our powder formulations.”

Another company memo dated from the 1980s admitted “We have no control system to prevent asbestos contamination at levels detectable by TEM (transmission electron microscope) in our finished product.”

Testimony in past trials revealed that although baby powder was a small part of the overall Johnson & Johnson product line, the company greatly valued it because of the powerful emotion of public trust the product evoked.

Maimon asked Hopkins if he had heard the product referred to by company officials as a flagship or sacred cow.

Referring to sacred cow label Hopkins said, “I don’t recollect, but it’s possible.”

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