David v. Goliath, Mississippi style

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Patsy Brumfield, Mississippi Today

Attorney R. Allen Smith of Ridgeland

There’s a Mississippi connection to the latest jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson over its talc products: Ridgeland attorney R. Allen Smith is the David going against the health care products giant.

On Monday, a St. Louis, Mo., jury ordered Johnson and Johnson to pay $55 million to a woman who claimed use of their talc products caused her ovarian cancer.

That follows a Feb. 24 verdict, also in St. Louis, that Johnson  & Johnson should pay $72 million to the family of an Alabama woman, Jacqueline Fox, who died from ovarian cancer just months before the trial.

Those cases are just two of more than 1,200 lawsuits pending against the company and led by Smith. More on Monday’s verdict.

Both verdicts included punitive damages against Johnson & Johnson, aimed at punishing the corporation for its failure to tell consumers about the dangers of talc and to serve as a warning moving ahead.

Johnson & Johnson said it would appeal the verdicts.

“The ball is in their court,” Smith, 45, said recently from his modest office, where he practices solo as The Smith Law Firm.

“We’re going to move on to the next case unless they want to settle,” the Mississippi College Law School graduate noted. Three more of his related cases are docketed from July to September.

In an emailed statement after the February verdict, J&J spokesman Carol Goodrich told BloombergBusiness, “We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we’re disappointed with the outcome of the trial.

“We sympathize with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence.”

That’s bunk, Smith says, pointing to the jury verdict, which took four hours after a three-week trial. Monday’s verdict came after 10 hours of deliberation.

The jury foreman in the February case, Krista Smith, termed the company’s internal documents “decisive” for their verdict.

“All they had to do was put a warning label on,” she said after the decision.

Allen Smith said he showed jurors Johnson & Johnson’s documents, dated years ago, showing the company leaders knew its talc-based products, such as baby powder and the “Shower to Shower” feminine hygiene brand, could pose potential legal problems.

Cornstarch has been substituted widely for talc as an absordent in similar products now. Johnson & Johnson introduced a baby powder using constarch in the 1970s, but continues to offer products that include talc, which it maintains is safe.

Smith, a Jackson native, insists that Johnson & Johnson knew talc was a potential cancer causer because the company which mines the talc posts warning labels on the product it ships to Johnson & Johnson.

Smith graduated from the University of Mississippi with an English degree and lots of pre-med courses under his belt. The son of a physician, he’d taken the medical school entry exam once and planned to do so again.

“I wasn’t sure, really, of what I wanted to do with my life, but I realized I was doing this because my dad did it,” Smith recalled. “So, I thought I’d get a law degree. That first year, I really started to know it was what I wanted to do.”

He insists he’s “fallen into” most of his major career moves, getting started with product liability cases while he was a self-described “baby lawyer” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast dealing with workers injured after using silica, a basic component of soil, sand, granite and other materials, quartz being the most common.

The U.S. Occupation & Health Agency says crystalline silica particles can be breathed into a person’s lungs when workers chip, cut, drill or grind objects that contain it, potentially causing severe health problems and the lung condition silicosis, which can be fatal.

In Smith’s office waiting room hangs a framed Mississippi jury verdict awarding damages to a client suffering from silica-caused injuries.

He said his fascination with the talc cases was a natural progression: “I’m familiar with dust.”

The first hint to Smith of talc concerns came from his father, Dr. Robert A. Smith, a plastic surgeon who owns numerous bio-materials patents, especially for wound care.

Smith said his father, in the early 2000s, began to receive calls from cosmetics manufacturers, who told him they needed to reformulate their talc-based makeup and asked him about some of his products.

“He told me about it,” Smith recalled about the inquiries.

He began to watch discussions about talc, especially its use in the genital area. He met with Harvard specialists to discuss the implications and joined some women’s ovarian cancer groups to learn more.

In 2009, he saw a woman’s cancer-website post about her ovarian cancer and her daily genital area talc use.

“I emailed her and said I’d followed this issue for years … and told her I’ve investigate,” Smith continued. “Lo and behold, she had a great case – tests showed she had talc in her genital tissue as a contributing cause to her cancer.”

That’s the first case, the one they won but got no damages awarded.

After that, Smith began to get more inquiries. He knew he couldn’t handle all these cases alone. So he reached out to a fellow attorney who’d written about his South Dakota verdict, attorney Ted Meadows, part of the well-known personal injury firm Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Ala.

He and Meadows teamed up and now carry those 1,200 cases ahead from St. Louis to New Jersey. They’re taking them one at a time.

Closer to home, he and others are assisting the Mississippi Attorney General’s office with a complaint against Johnson & Johnson and others accusing them of violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act.