Defense attorneys say star plaintiff witness flip-flopped opinion in testing lab in J&J trial

By John Sammon | May 2, 2019

ALAMEDA – Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive on Wednesday attempted to poke holes in the testimony of a star expert witness called by plaintiff attorneys, saying Dr. William Longo flip-flopped on his opinion of a testing lab used by the talc powder makers.

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

The plaintiff Patricia Schmitz is suing Johnson & Johnson for its baby powder and Colgate-Palmolive makers of a face powder called Cashmere Bouquet, claiming that asbestos in the products caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer of the linings of the  lungs.

Hundreds of lawsuits are pending against Johnson & Johnson, most filed by women claiming the powder gave them ovarian cancer, though mesothelioma cases are on the rise. The Alameda proceeding is only the second in this Northern California community, although many of the lawsuits originated here. Most past trials have been heard in Los Angeles courts.

Longo, a microscope researcher with the Georgia-based MAS lab, has appeared in numerous asbestos trials as an expert witness for plaintiff attorneys.

Alex Calfo, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, said Longo had once praised the McCrone Group lab in Illinois as one of the best in the country, but now as a plaintiff witness criticizes the lab. Defense attorneys in asbestos trials frequently refer to the McCrone lab for its findings of no asbestos in J&J baby powder.    

“You (once) testified the McCrone lab was the best lab in the country,” Calfo told Longo.

“Yes,” Longo agreed.

Longo criticized McCrone for what he said was its changing of test results (finding zero asbestos) to suit the wishes of clients.

“You’re saying they (McCrone) were falsifying documents,” Calfo said.

“No, I said they were making changes on behalf of clients, which is different,” Longo answered.

“You criticized what you considered the best lab - that’s an asbestos litigation-driven opinion isn’t it?” Calfo asked.

“No,” Longo said.

Talc powder comes from a mined mineral and was dug for Johnson & Johnson from mines in Italy, Vermont, and more recently Korea and China.   

Calfo showed Longo a 1987 letter from McCrone saying a talc mine in Vermont used to produce powder for Johnson & Johnson had been found to be free of asbestos.

“That’s what it (letter) says,” Longo agreed.

Calfo said additional testing done in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health of the talc mine in Vermont had also found no asbestos.

“There was no asbestos in the bulk samples tested,” Longo corrected.

Longo earlier testified that his firm found a majority of samples of the baby powder contaminated with asbestos.

Calfo sought to portray the uncertainty of the origin of bottles of baby powder tested by Longo, where they originally came from and how they had been stored.

Longo agreed the origin of some baby powder bottles were unknown. Some bottles were procured from eBay, bought off a store shelf or from a Johnson & Johnson product museum with powder possibly dating back as far as the 1940s.

“You have no information where these were stored before they were in the (J&J) museum?” Calfo asked.

“No,” Longo responded.

“You don’t know how many people had possession of the bottles?” Calfo asked.

“True,” Longo said.

“Did you know some of the bottles were stored in an old powder house?”

“No.”

“Did you know that one (bottle) came from a shipwreck?”

“Did a diver get it?” Longo asked. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make jokes.”

Longo agreed that hundreds of tests of the powder including those from the McCrone Group had reported no asbestos in the samples.

Calfo questioned Longo about the chance that non-asbestos minerals could be crushed resulting in fiber-like shards called “cleavage fragments” that looked like, could be mistaken for and misidentified as asbestos fibers.

“You could take a piece of non-asbestos rock and break it up and call it asbestos,” Calfo said.

“It would not be asbestos,” Longo said.

Longo has been a proponent of a method of testing talc powder called “heavy liquid separation” or concentration developed in the 1970s in which talc is spun in a tube separating it from heavier minerals which sink to the bottom and can be analyzed by microscope. Longo said the method results in greater sensitivity allowing asbestos fibers to be more easily detected.

Johnson & Johnson officials declined to use the process saying they didn’t believe it to be effective.

“The method you used (concentration), you’ve never published on this in peer reviewed literature?” Calfo asked.

“True,” Longo said.  

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