Northern California Record

Monday, February 17, 2020

Mesothelioma trial opens in Santa Monica; Mother says disease first suspected to be stomach ache


By John Sammon | Mar 26, 2019

Simon and Bailey

SANTA MONICA – Opening remarks Monday in a trial to determine if Johnson & Johnson baby powder caused a woman to develop mesothelioma pitted plaintiff attorneys who said the company had engaged in a campaign of deception to protect their profits, versus defendant attorneys who contended the product was asbestos-free.

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson said 36-year-old plaintiff Gail Koretoff’s mesothelioma was caused by reasons other than use of J&J baby powder.

Koretoff’s mother testified the disease was originally suspected as only a stomach ache.

The trial in the Los Angeles County Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Koretoff, 36, is suing Johnson & Johnson alleging that its baby powder was contaminated with asbestos and caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the linings of the lungs.

Koretoff’s attorney, Jeffrey Simon of the law firm of Simon, Greenstone & Panatier based in Dallas, Texas, told the jury Johnson & Johnson had sold a product that was deceptively dangerous.

“We will prove the powder product that contains asbestos and has no warning label about that fact is deceptively dangerous,” he said. “We will prove it contains asbestos that causes cancer.”

Simon said the company promoted the product for use on babies and adults by the promotion of its soft, silky feel and chemical fragrance that was meant to invoke a feeling of safety among users. He said instead the product concealed a grim irony.

“Gail Koretoff used it (baby powder) for the first 33 years of her life,” Simon said. “She never outgrew baby powder, nor will she survive it.”

Simon said officials at Johnson & Johnson knew the product was dangerous but concealed it from the public.

“We will prove the failure to fix this product or to warn about it caused Gail Koretoff two diseases,” Simon said. “One is mesothelioma, the other is pleural plaques, a scarring of the lungs. These are tell-tale signs of asbestos exposure.”

Simon said the company was determined to protect is bottom-line profits whatever the health cost to others and, especially from the 1970s on, formulated a defense to deny the truth.

“We ask you to deliver justice for this precious young life (Koretoff),” he said.

The attorney for Johnson & Johnson, Mel Bailey of the Austin, Texas office of the King & Spalding law firm, countered that there was no conspiracy to hide anything by the company and that its baby powder product never contained asbestos.

He indicated the idea that despite testing over and over for decades by scientists who have nothing to do with Johnson & Johnson and by the government, that they all missed finding asbestos was ridiculous.

“There seemed to be a conspiracy behind it all,” Bailey said. “How can it be? People all over the world have looked at the source of the (talc) mines and bottle by bottle for decades. Now Dr. Longo sees asbestos when none else did.”

Dr. William Longo, a microscope researcher with the MAS lab in Georgia, will testify and has been a prominent plaintiff witness in asbestos trials.

Bailey said Longo only started testing for asbestos after being hired by lawyers to testify for plaintiffs and had made millions of dollars doing so.

Bailey said Johnson & Johnson, using its own labs and outside labs like the McCrone Group in Illinois, had extensively tested its products and used more testing methods rising above standards.

“They (plaintiff attorneys) say this was done with the goal of hiding asbestos,” he said.

He added that over decades some of the world’s most preeminent scientists had all come back with findings of no asbestos in J&J baby powder.

Government organizations like the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had also turned up no asbestos he noted.

“It (product) is free of asbestos,” Bailey said. “Just apply your common sense. This product has been around a long time. Do you really believe this (baby powder bottle) is chock full of asbestos and the only people (Longo) qualified to test it are coming to testify in litigation?”   

On Tuesday, Anneillia Koretoff, Gail Koretoff’s mother, appeared as a witness. She told the jury she had never seen a warning of any kind on Johnson & Johnson baby powder bottles that the product might contain asbestos.

“What would you have done if you had been warned?” she was asked.

“I would have discontinued use,” Koretoff answered.

Her daughter’s diagnosis of mesothelioma was made in October 2016. She said the ordeal began when her daughter complained of stomach aches.

“She would say, 'I don’t feel good,'” Anneilla Koretoff said. “We took her to a doctor and we thought it was perhaps an ulcer. We changed her diet but she kept complaining (of stomach pain).”

Her mother said the plaintiff collapsed on the kitchen floor and was rushed to a hospital. A CAT-scan revealed a mass in the chest at the lung.

“The doctor came and asked, 'To your knowledge, has she been exposed to asbestos?'” Koretoff said. “I was stunned.”

Koretoff said her daughter had undergone six rounds of chemotherapy in addition to major surgery, including the removal of lymph nodes and radiation treatments at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Thousands of cases against Johnson & Johnson alleging injuries from asbestos exposure are pending in courts. In New Jersey, plaintiff verdicts have been high. There have been verdicts of $117 million and $37 million.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia judge recently dismissed a plaintiff's lawsuit after refusing to let her expert testify. Without experts to testify to a link between talc and asbestos-related cancers, plaintiffs'  cases fall apart.

Also, a California jury earlier this month hit the company with a $29.4 million verdict in another mesothelioma case. The potential liability has forced J&J's talc supplier Imerys Talc America into bankruptcy.

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Organizations in this Story

King & Spalding LLPSimon Greenstone Panatier BartlettJohnson & JohnsonLos Angeles County Superior Court - Santa Monica courthouse

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