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11 Lawyers Named to Tort Claims Committee in Talc Supplier's Bankruptcy

Imerys headquarters in Paris. Photo: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

A trustee in the Delaware bankruptcy of Imerys Talc America Inc. has appointed 11 plaintiffs attorneys to represent cancer victims with claims against the talc supplier.

Imerys, the primary talc supplier to Johnson & Johnson, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition Feb. 13, citing “significant potential liabilities” associated with lawsuits linking talcum powder to cancer. The U.S. division of Paris-based Imerys, with headquarters in San Jose, California, plans to set up a litigation trust to manage talcum powder claims, while continuing to operate business as usual.

Members of the official committee of tort claimants, appointed Tuesday, include W. Mark Lanier of The Lanier Law Firm in Houston, who won a record $4.7 billion verdict last year against Johnson & Johnson. Also on the committee are Ted Meadows, of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, in Montgomery, Alabama, who spearheaded some of the first talcum powder trials that resulted in multimillion-dollar awards in Missouri, and Steve Baron of Dallas-based Baron & Budd, a regular in asbestos bankruptcy trusts.

Many of the lawyers on the committee brought the largest number of the nearly 15,000 lawsuits against Imerys, according to a list of top 30 law firms attached to its bankruptcy petition last month.

“It’s a way for you to have a voice in setting up the terms of the trust,” said Steven Todd Brown, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law, of the tort claimants committee. “What kind of criteria will be used? What are the payment structures? What protections are there against the trust being depleted? You get a say in a lot of those things as a member.”

In one of its first moves, the tort claimants committee, represented by Robinson & Cole, filed court papers Thursday to address a legal claim brought by an Imerys predecessor over more than $700 million in insurance assets.

On Feb. 27, Imerys bankruptcy attorneys at Latham & Watkins and Richard, Layton & Finger in Wilmington, filed a motion to appoint a Delaware lawyer as the legal representative for future tort claimants. James Patton, chairman emeritus of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, in Wilmington, has been working with Imerys since Sept. 25 to assess its exposure to future claims.

A litigation trust would force current or future claims against Imerys out of the court system.

“It’s conceptually very simple,” Brown said. “We throw a pot of assets over here, and that’s going to be it. Anytime there’s a claim, it’s channeled into this trust.”

How much of that pot remains unclear. For claimants, whether existing or future, there is a finite amount of money, Brown said. That said, the bankruptcy process is more streamlined, and claimants could still go to court against Johnson & Johnson.

In a declaration submitted with the bankruptcy filing, Imerys Chief Financial Officer Alexandra Picard said that Imerys lacked “the financial wherewithal to litigate against the mounting talc claims." She cited increased settlement demands in the wake of the $4.7 billion verdict and the increased unwillingness of its insurance firms to cover legal costs as reasons to file for bankruptcy.

The vast majority of the claims allege talcum powder, made by Johnson & Johnson and some other cosmetic companies, caused women to get ovarian cancer. A growing number have linked talcum powder to mesothelioma, the deadly lung cancer associated with asbestos.

Some of the largest verdicts against Imerys have been a $117 million award last year in New Jersey, of which it was responsible for 30 percent, and a $70 million Missouri verdict in 2016 that included $2.5 million against it.

In addition to Lanier, Meadows and Baron, here is who is on the tort claimants’ committee:

  • Audrey Raphael, a partner at Levy Konigsberg in New York, whose firm won the $117 million verdict and represents plaintiffs in New York City Asbestos Litigation court.
  • Wendy Julian, of asbestos firm Gori Julian & Associates in Edwardsville, Illinois.
  • Amanda Klevorn, an associate at Burns Charest in New Orleans.
  • James Onder, of St. Louis-based OnderLaw, who teamed up with Beasley Allen on many of the first Missouri trials.
  • Leah Kagan, a shareholder at Simon Greenstone Panatier, whose Dallas firm has spearheaded several mesothelioma trials in California.
  • Michelle Parfitt, of Ashcraft & Gerel in Alexandria, Virginia, who was on the trial team that got a $417 million verdict in California and who is co-lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey.
  • Christopher Placitella, of Cohen Placitella & Roth, in Red Bank, New Jersey, who is liaison counsel in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey.
  • John Bevis, of Barnes Law Group in Marietta, Georgia.