OAKLAND – Plaintiff attorneys on Wednesday sought to portray a mineralogist expert witness for Johnson & Johnson as a paid professional hireling of the talc industry in a trial of a case alleging the company’s baby powder caused a woman’s mesothelioma.
“You are the only employee for R.J. Lee Group who testifies at trials for Johnson & Johnson?” asked plaintiff attorney Joseph Satterley.
“That’s correct,” responded Matthew Sanchez, a materials analyst with the Pennsylvania-based lab R.J. Lee.
The trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Plaintiff Patricia Schmitz sued Johnson & Johnson over its baby powder and Colgate-Palmolive for a face powder product called Cashmere Bouquet claiming that use of the products over a 40-year period caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs. Doctors hold out little hope the 61-year-old woman, mother of two, and former school teacher will survive past this summer.
Hundreds of cases against J&J are pending, most filed by women alleging the powder caused them to contract ovarian cancer. Court cases involving mesothelioma, a much-rarer disease, have been on the increase lately.
The Alameda trial is only the second to be heard in Northern California courts, though many lawsuits have originated here. Most cases in the past have been heard in Los Angeles courts.
Satterley sought to undercut Sanchez’s credibility as an expert witness by calling attention to the cases in which he has served on behalf of talc company defendants.
“You have been engulfed in litigation,” Satterley asked.
“I have been,” Sanchez said.
“You’ve been involved in over 50 Colgate-Palmolive mesothelioma cases.”
“Sounds right,” Sanchez said.
Satterley asked Sanchez if it would be a mistake to mislead a jury by misidentifying a mineral as asbestos when it's not. He said on a Power Point demonstration, Sanchez had placed a photo of a non-asbestos mineral palygorskite (aluminum), and called it asbestos.
“If that’s the case, it’s an error on our part,” Sanchez said.
“You made an error.”
An issue of contention in the trial has been that of cleavage fragments, which are crushed rock particles formed in the mining and milling process of talc, a mineral, which can resemble in size and shape asbestos fibers. A standard length to width ratio for an asbestos fiber is 3-to-1 or 5-to-1.
Defendant attorneys have maintained that cleavage fragments are non-toxic and that plaintiff attorneys and their witnesses have mistakenly identified them as asbestos fibers. Plaintiff attorneys claim cleavage fragments can be asbestos.
Talc powder for Johnson & Johnson has been mined in Italy, Vermont and North Carolina and since 2003 in China.
“You always called the tremolite you found in an Italian mine as cleavage fragments, right?” Satterley asked.
“You’ve never done talc work for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), correct?” Satterley asked.
“Correct,” Sanchez said.
Satterley said Sanchez had given presentations in litigation seminars for defendants through the Defense Research Institute, an organization of defense attorneys.
“You did an asbestos litigation seminar in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2016,” Satterley said.
“I believe that’s correct,” Sanchez said.
“R.J. Lee was the sponsor?”
“In 2017, you presented in Florida for the Defense Litigation Seminar,” Satterley said.
“I did,” Sanchez said.
Satterley asked Sanchez if he had accomplished a significant increase in revenue through his testimony in asbestos cases, a total $1.8 million.
“Sure,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also agreed a portion of the cost of his achieving a master’s degree was funded by W.R. Grace, a Maryland chemical company that no longer makes asbestos-related products but which faced thousands of lawsuits through the 1990s.
Satterley asked if R.J. Lee Group had been hired for materials analysis by R.T. Vanderbilt, a Connecticut chemicals company.
“Sure,” Sanchez responded.
“You were paid by R.T. Vanderbilt to characterize minerals mined in Upstate New York as non-asbestos,” Satterley said.
Sanchez answered that the mineral tremolite that was found in that instance had been non-asbestos.
“Is it your opinion no asbestos was found in R.T. Vanderbilt talc?” Satterley asked.
“For samples I tested, yes,” Sanchez said.
Satterely said William Longo, a microscope researcher with the MAS lab in Georgia and an expert witness for the plaintiff, had reported finding 40 percent of samples from Chinese talc with asbestos.
Satterley asked Sanchez if in his opinion there was no asbestos in the Chinese talc.
“All that I’ve tested from that region, no, I’ve not found any,” Sanchez said.