Chris Placitella Interviewed by NJ Law Journal As Mesothelioma Authority
By: Chris Placitella @ Sep 13, 2014
The New Jersey Law Journal reviews the state of asbestos litigation in New Jersey.
N.J. Asbestos Litigation Still Active And Still Evolving Mary Pat Gallagher, New Jersey Law Journal September 12, 2014
Even decades after the end of most U.S. production of asbestos, litigation against the companies that made it or put it in their products is alive and well in the state courts of New Jersey. The number of pending cases is far below the thousands that once clogged court calendars and drove a string of companies—including Johns-Manville, Celotex, W.R. Grace and GAF Corp.—into bankruptcy. But the defendants now being sued are a different and broader assortment of companies, including makers of talc, fertilizer and even cigarettes, raising new questions concerning exposure and causation, according to lawyers. Attorneys also said the cases are moving more swiftly now under the direction of Judge Ana Viscomi, who recently took over as head of the asbestos mass tort docket centralized in Middlesex County….The oldest asbestos statistics available from the judiciary show 3,037 cases at the end of 1999, dropping to 2,882 by December 2000. Between June 2005 and June 2006, the number fell below 1,000, and it continued to decline to a low of 331 at the end of June 2013, rebounding slightly to 382 this past June. The removal of cases to federal court also reduced the number in state court. Judiciary spokeswoman Tamara Kendig said 20 were removed between July 2013 to June 2014. As of Sept. 5, there were roughly 370 asbestos lawsuits pending in New Jersey state courts…. Secondary exposure cases tend to involve family members of people who worked in places like factories and shipyards, got asbestos on themselves at work and carried it home on their clothing, a type of indirect claim recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the 2006 case Olivo v. Owens-Illinois. Talc, like asbestos, is mined and is sometimes contaminated with asbestos….. The first talc case set for trial before Viscomi, in November, would also be the first in the U.S. against Colgate-Palmolive, maker of Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder. Procter & Gamble, maker of the Desert Flower, Friendship Garden and Old Spice Brands, is also a defendant. There also cigarette cases in the pipeline. The cases, which are few in number, involve Lorillard’s Kent brand. For a few years during the 1950s, the cigarettes’ filters contained asbestos. Another recent trend in asbestos litigation is an uptick in cases involving lung cancer, as opposed to mesothelioma, according David Katzenstein of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott in Newark. While plaintiffs who smoked as well as alleging asbestos exposure have a tougher time showing causation than those with mesothelioma, … Mesothelioma cases are not extinct, however.
Though few products with asbestos are now being made, people continue to get sick and die and lawsuits keep getting filed because of the long latency period between initial exposure and a diagnosable illness, lawyers said. It generally takes 20 to 50 years from when asbestos fibers are inhaled until a diagnosis of mesothelioma, a deadly disease with few other known causes. Most early cases involved living plaintiffs with scarred lungs in contrast to the claims involving mesothelioma and cancer and already deceased or dying plaintiffs that predominate these days, said plaintiffs lawyer Christopher Placitella, of Placitella Cohen & Roth in Red Bank, N.J. Asbestos was once widely used for insulation—wrapped around heating pipes, boilers, electrical wires and other objects—and the first wave of litigation targeted insulation manufacturers like Johns-Manville, once the world’s largest producer of asbestos products, with its biggest U.S. plant located in Manville, N.J. Plaintiffs have traditionally been heavily blue collar: factory workers, plumbers, mechanics, electricians and others who worked with asbestos products or in asbestos-contaminated environments. Asbestos litigation was centralized as a mass tort in Middlesex County in 2008. Since then, three judges have been in charge: Ann McCormick, from 2008 to 2012, Vincent LeBlon, starting in August 2012, and now Viscomi, who took over the case load as of March 1. Viscomi was a family judge when she was tapped to head up the mass tort docket and was an administrative law judge before becoming a Superior Court judge in 2012. But she also had five years of experience as a special master for asbestos cases in Middlesex County from 1996 to 2001, and worked as toxic-tort litigation coordinator in Middlesex County from 1989 to 1990. Placitella praised her “deep knowledge and understanding” of asbestos litigation, encompassing its history, medical aspects and the parties Lawyers said she is moving litigation along at a faster clip, deciding motions from the bench….r. In what lawyers said was a welcome move, Viscomi has revived the Asbestos Advisory Council, which had lapsed in recent years. With four plaintiffs lawyers and eight defense lawyers, it is a bit larger than in the past to reflect the more diverse nature of the defendants. On the plaintiffs side are Placitella, as well as lawyers from Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge, N.J., Levy Konigsberg and Weitzman & Luxenberg in Cherry Hill, N.J. Garde and Gaffrey are among the defense members, along with lawyers from Verona, N.J.’s O’Toole Fernandez Weiner Van Lieu, Florham Park, N.J.’s McGivney & Kluger, Fairfield, N.J.’s Caruso Smith Picini, Merchantville, N.J.’s Reilly Janiczek & McDevitt, Iselin, N.J.’s Kent & McBride and Morristown, N.J.’s McElroy Deutsch Mulvaney & Carpenter. Like her predecessors, Viscomi is the sole asbestos judge but has the assistance of a special master, Agatha Dzikiewicz, who oversees discovery and case management, holds settlement conferences and creates the trial list. Asbestos claims are seldom tried. The vast majority settle quietly, or are thrown out or withdrawn. The known verdicts, however, are often in the multimillion dollar realm. The highest reported asbestos award in New Jersey was $30.3 million in 2008 to the family of advertising executive Mark Buttitta, who died of mesothelioma in 2002. He claimed secondhand asbestos exposure from the clothing of his father, who worked at a General Motors plant, and first-hand exposure from his summer job at the same plant during college. General Motors settled out of the case on confidential terms before trial, as did two other defendants during trial, leaving only Borg-Warner Corp., and Asbestos Corp., by the time of the verdict, which was upheld in 2010.
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