Unique Business Logo Creates Evidentiary Path to Product Identification

A logo can be a first impression akin to the front door of a business. In Hart v. Keenan Properties, Inc., the logo “was the letter “K” drawn to resemble a straight pipe and an angled pipe, enclosed in a circle.” The California Supreme Court decision ruled that this unique business logo can create an evidentiary path for product identification in product liability cases.

The court granted review “to determine whether a company’s name and logo appearing on an invoice can constitute hearsay.” The answer: not in this case. “Under the facts presented, a witness’s observation of the name and logo was circumstantial evidence of identity, not proof of the truth of the matters asserted in the document.”

Plaintiff Frank Hart cut, beveled, and installed pipes for Christeve Corporation on the McKinleyville project from 1976-1977. After Plaintiff developed mesothelioma, he and his wife sued a number of entities who allegedly distributed asbestos-containing pipes to the project. Plaintiffs alleged that Keenan was one such supplier.

Plaintiff’s supervising foreman testified that it was his responsibility to check goods to the items listed on the invoice to ensure they matched upon delivery. He recalled that Keenan pipe was used at the project, because he remembered seeing the name “Keenan” on the invoices. When asked why Keenan sticks out in his mind, he replied, “Just the way the – their K and stuff is all – I don’t know.”

Keenan objected to the foreman’s testimony regarding the invoice arguing it was hearsay and further objecting that Plaintiffs failed to authenticate the document. The trial court overruled Keenan’s objections, primarily on the ground that the evidence was not hearsay but instead circumstantial evidence of identity. The jury awarded judgment against Keenan.

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Keenan appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding the foreman’s descriptions of the invoices at issue were hearsay. The California Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

The court ruled that the foreman’s testimony about the invoices was being offered not for the truth of its contents, but instead to establish the link between Keenan and the foreman’s testimony that Keenan delivered pipes to the McKinleyville project. “[I]t is the combination of some characteristic that makes the document identifiable and the independent evidence connecting Keenan to the identifiable document that established the link.”

Other witnesses supported that link. Christeve’s bookkeeper testified that she recalled Keenan’s logo, “the K with a circle around it.” When asked why she remembered the logo she stated, “Because I know that we dealt with them, and [the logo] was unique, and I like it.” This evidence demonstrated that Keenan and Christeve did conduct business together during the relevant time. Keenan’s corporate representative acknowledged that Keenan sent customers invoices that bore Keenan’s name and logo. Thus, the court found that “[i]t was not unreasonable to infer [the foreman] was referring to the K logo acknowledged by Keenan’s representative.” “Taken together, the evidence was relevant to prove the disputed link between Keenan and the pipes, regardless of the content on the invoice.”

Does this mean that testimony about an invoice or other document that was itself lost long ago will always be admitted? Not necessarily. In California, though, defendants will not likely be able to exclude that testimony based on the hearsay rule.

Possibility That Product Contained Asbestos Not Enough to Create Triable Issue in California

Recently, in Berg v. Colgate, the Court of Appeal gave good news to manufacturers who dispute that their products contain asbestos. “It was not enough for plaintiffs to produce some evidence that [plaintiff] was exposed to a product that possibly contained asbestos.” Plaintiffs’ case against Colgate was dismissed when plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence that plaintiff “was more likely than not exposed to asbestos contained in a product sold by Mennen.”

Colgate-Palmolive Company’s predecessor, the Mennen Company, manufactured a shave talc that plaintiff used from 1959 to 1962. Colgate adamantly disputes that the product contained asbestos. Further, Colgate argued plaintiff could not establish through reliable evidence that the talc plaintiff actually used contained asbestos.

Plaintiffs argued that all or virtually all of the Mennen talc that plaintiff used from 1959-1962 contained asbestos. First, plaintiffs put forth evidence that Mennen’s talc supply came from mines historically known (aka assumed) to be contaminated with asbestos. Next, they submitted a 1972 FDA test showing that Mennen talc contained 4% chrysotile asbestos and a 1976 test showing that Mennen talc manufactured in 1972 contained 2% tremolite asbestos. Last, plaintiffs’ expert tested Mennen talc samples which looked similar to the description of the cans plaintiff used. Plaintiffs’ expert alleged that the samples contained amphibole asbestos. From the combined evidence, plaintiffs’ expert opined to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the cans plaintiff used from 1959-1962 contained dangerous levels of asbestos.

The Court of Appeal was not convinced that a jury could conclude from plaintiffs’ evidence that it was more likely than not that the shave talc plaintiff used contained asbestos. Even assuming that some talc came from mines that contained some level of asbestos, plaintiffs “fail[ed] to a support a conclusion that all or most of the Mennen Shave Talc containers sold from 1959 to 1962 contained asbestos.” Notably, plaintiffs’ expert relied upon the FDA’s testing of cans that were manufactured at least 10 years after the time plaintiff used the product. What’s more, the testing plaintiffs’ expert personally conducted were on cans of an unknown origin date. Plaintiff’s testimony that the cans tested looked similar to the cans he used decades prior is insufficient.

Plaintiffs primarily relied on Lyons, where the court  found  “substantial evidence creating a triable issue as to whether Colgate’s Cashmere Bouquet talc contained asbestos that may be found to have been a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.”  The Court of Appeal disagreed, distinguishing Lyons on several grounds.  In Lyons, plaintiff used the product for over 20 years. Additionally, Colgate did not dispute that the product contained asbestos and there was no evidence of any other source of asbestos exposure. Taken together, this was enough evidence to “create more than an unsupported possibility” that the product exposed plaintiff to asbestos.

Here, unlike Lyons, plaintiffs’ expert was unable to explain rationally “or even commonsensically logical” how he determined Mennen cans sold during the applicable time contained asbestos. Unlike Lyons, plaintiffs allege additional exposure to asbestos from other products. A final, distinguishing factor was that plaintiff used Mennen shave talc for a short period of time, 1959-1962, and only between 4-6 cans during that period. “Thus, [plaintiff’s] eventual development of mesothelioma provides much weaker support for an inference that the shave talc he used contained asbestos.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held that plaintiffs failed to carry their evidentiary burden. “At best, plaintiffs presented evidence that the shave talc [plaintiff] used exposed him to asbestos, but they failed to present evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that any such exposure was more likely than not.” This case will provide helpful legal precedent to ensure that plaintiffs satisfy their evidentiary burden to demonstrate the product was more likely than not to contain asbestos.

California Talc Decision Bars Predecessor Liability, and Denies Punitive Damages Absent Scientific Consensus

When a Los Angeles jury returned an eye-popping $416 million verdict for plaintiff in a closely-watched talcum powder ovarian cancer case in 2017, the world took notice. The trial court granted post-trial motions that dramatically changed the jury’s verdict. Recently, in Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, the Court of Appeal gave both sides a mixed result, with rulings that will apply to many other product liability cases.

Johnson & Johnson – Former Manufacturer – No Liability

J&J manufactured the product until 1967, when it spun off to subsidiary J&J Consumer Products (“JJCI”). The jury found J&J liable, awarding both compensatory and punitive damages. The trial court granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). The Court of Appeal affirmed, applying “the general rule that a manufacturer has no duty to warn of risks posed by another manufacturers product” (citing O’Neil and Taylor, a Gordon & Rees victory). The Echeverria court distinguished the California Supreme Court decision in Novartis, which found such a predecessor manufacturer liable, because that case “concerned continuing liability for a negligent failure to warn in labeling that occurred prior to a manufactured divesting itself of the rights to the” product.

The risk of ovarian cancer from talc use during the time that J&J manufactured the product was speculative. Because of that, J&J did not owe consumers a duty to warn. Later developments, including J&J’s active participation in industry groups to defend talc, did not create a duty to warn after the fact. The court ruled that J&J is not responsible for JJCI’s later products solely because of the parent-subsidiary relationship.

This part of the decision will aid defendants in future cases where the exposures pre-date certainty of the claimed risk. Manufacturers that spun off, or sold off, product lines should be heartened by the decision. The parent company will not be liable so long as the sub is not controlled by its parent.

The Actual Manufacturer, JJCI, Gets a Split Decision – But All Better than the Jury’s Verdict

The jury also found JJCI liable – awarding both compensatory and punitive damages. The trial court granted both JNOV and a new trial. The Court of Appeal reversed the JNOV but affirmed the new trial, essentially holding that while the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict and thus defeat JNOV, there was also enough defense evidence to justify the trial court’s discretionary grant of new trial.

Plaintiff’s Evidence Enough to Support Verdict

The Court of Appeal reasoned that the evidence showed as of 2007 (when decedent died) JJCI knew, as did the scientific and medical community, that there was a statistically significant association between genital talc use and ovarian cancer. While there has yet to be a scientific consensus that genital talc causes ovarian cancer, as needed to prove causation, it was sufficient to show a risk existed. Thus, JJCI had a duty to warn consumers of the risk. Ultimately, what was known between 1967 and 2007 was significant enough that JJCI failed to act reasonably. JJCI should have issued an appropriate warning.

The trial court found significant weaknesses in plaintiff’s causation evidence, particularly relating to the differential diagnosis and relative risk evidence. The defense argued plaintiff’s expert’s reliance improper because the results failed to stratify patients into well-defined risk groups. Further, the results were not classified by the type of tissue in which decedent’s cancer originated. The Court of Appeal found that these weaknesses were not fatal to the plaintiff’s case, but merely “affected the weight of the evidence.”

The defense argued plaintiff was required to rule out other potential causes of decedent’s ovarian cancer, such as unknown etiology, arguing since plaintiff’s expert ignored other causes, the opinion was speculative. The Court of Appeal did not find the opinion speculative since the expert “did not ignore idiopathy but instead determined there was in fact a known cause of the cancer.” The Court of Appeal also pointed to the failure of the defense to advance evidence of a specific alternative cause stating, “[t]he defendant did not identify any relevant evidence about other causes it claimed the expert overlooked.” Had the defense done so, then plaintiff’s expert would have had to rule it out. It is not enough to simply discredit plaintiff’s theory. Defense counsel should always advance their own narrative.

Defense Evidence Sufficient to Justify New Trial

The trial court granted JJCI’s request for a new trial, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, because the evidence supported a defense verdict. “[T]he trial court’s ruling granting JNOV to JJCI as to liability must be reversed because the trial court weighed the evidence and made credibility determinations when rejecting and evaluating aspects of [plaintiff’s expert] testimony. In ruling on the new trial motion, however, the court was permitted to assess the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, and draw inferences from the evidence different from those the jury may have drawn.”

Perhaps the key evidence was that there is no consensus among the scientific and medical community that genital talc use causes ovarian cancer. “[N]o published studies, regulatory agencies, or scientific organizations have concluded talc-based inflammation causes ovarian cancer.” The FDA has not found there is “conclusive evidence of a causal association” between talc use and ovarian cancer. Even evidence from the National Cancer Institute in 2017 “concluded the weight of the evidence did not support an association between perineal talc use and ovarian cancer.”

“The causation evidence was in significant conflict,” and a “reasonable jury” could have found for the defense. For example, “the trial court found [one plaintiff expert] ‘cherry picked’ the studies without sufficient justification and the weight of the epidemiological evidence undermined her opinion. There was evidence to support this finding.” The “trial court also found there was no evidence of inflammation present in Echeverria’s tissue, rejecting [another plaintiff expert’s] testimony and inferences that could be drawn from it.”

No Punitive Damages Before Scientific Consensus Established

Critically, the Court of Appeal held there cannot be an award for punitive damages “when the evidence demonstrated it is not universally accepted in the scientific and medical community that talc is even a significant factor for ovarian cancer.” Lack of such consensus is common in cases involving many different products with ingredients alleged to be toxic.

Based on this reasoning, unless the scientific and medical community suddenly comes to a consensus that genital talc use causes ovarian cancer or the California Supreme Court grants the inevitable petition for review and reverses, it seems highly unlikely plaintiff can win punitive damages on retrial.