St. Louis Record

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Judge presiding over talc trials was panelist at conference organized by plaintiff lawyers

State Court

By John Breslin | Nov 4, 2019

Babypowder

A St. Louis judge involved in one of the most high profile series of legal actions in the country was a panelist at a Las Vegas conference organized by plaintiff lawyers.

The conference took place following a significant appeals court reversal of a verdict handed down in the court of St. Louis City Circuit Judge Rex Burlison, of the 22nd Circuit Court. 

Other sitting judges - Arnold New, the supervising judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Complex Litigation Center, and Diane Bessen, of Fulton County State Court in Georgia - were also panelists at the Mass Torts Made Perfect gathering at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

The three spoke on the topic of "Coordination - What State Judges Are Really Thinking" on Oct. 23.

Attorneys, business representatives, and academics contacted by the St. Louis Record and asked about the optics and ethical considerations surrounding judges being involved in such conferences did not want, or were unable to under legal guidelines, said they were unable to comment on the issue. Representatives of the plaintiff and defense did not respond to messages asking for comment.

In Missouri, where Judge Burlison has overseen several cases alleging Johnson and Johnson's talc-based baby powder caused ovarian cancer in women, one state senator spoke in more general terms of the continuing need for tort reform.

Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) who was not in a position to speak about individual judges or cases, said there is still an issue in the state, particularly relating to punitive awards. He expects further bills on punitive damages to be filed during the next session of the legislature.

Burlison has overseen a number of trials involving claims that J&J's talc-based baby powder caused ovarian cancer in women, including one where 22 were awarded a total of $4.69 billion.

But four jury verdicts were overturned by appeals courts, including most recently, on Oct. 15, the reversal of a $110 million verdict against J&J.

In the most recent reversal, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that Lois Slemp, a plaintiff from Virginia, had no  right to sue in Missouri because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California. The Supreme Court ruling effectively barred state courts from exercising jurisdiction over out-of-state plaintiffs if the defendant was not principally based in the state.

J&J is currently appealing the largest award handed down in Burlison's court, $4.69 billion to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on asbestos in the company’s Baby Powder and other talc-based products.

Last December, Burlison ruled against the company, finding that the verdict and award of large punitive damages was correct because “substantial evidence was adduced at trial of particularly reprehensible conduct on the part of defendants, including that defendants knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies.

In a statement, J&J said the attempt in front of Burlison was simply a formal step that had tp be taken before an appeal.

“The same judge has denied similar motions on prior verdicts in his court that were ultimately overturned by the appellate courts. We are confident this verdict will also be overturned on appeal,” J&J stated.

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