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Talc Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Punitive Damages Claim Granted; Motion to Dismiss Civil Conspiracy Claim Denied

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U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

In this asbestos action, plaintiff Michael Simoneaux initially filed suit against his former employers for alleged asbestos exposure. He later amended his complaint to include Mennen and Johnson & Johnson (hereinafter, “Talc Defendants”), asserting that from the 1960s until 2000 he consistently used Mennen Baby Magic and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder, and that these products contained asbestos. In response, the Talc Defendants moved to partially dismiss the complaint as to the punitive damages claim, asserting that the plaintiff failed to allege that Mennen or Johnson & Johnson stored, handled, or transported products as is required under the applicable Louisiana punitive damages statute. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson requested dismissal of the civil conspiracy claim, arguing that the plaintiff failed to plead with particularity the overt acts necessary to provide conspiracy to commit fraud under the strict pleading standards set forth under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The plaintiff opposed both motions.

The central issue in a motion to dismiss is whether, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the complaint states a valid claim for relief. To avoid dismissal, a plaintiff must plead sufficient facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.

Regarding the punitive damages claim, the Louisiana punitive damages statute in effect at the time the plaintiff allegedly used the Talc Defendants’ products stated that punitive damages “may be awarded by a defendant’s wanton or reckless disregard for public safety in the storage, handling, or transportation of hazardous or toxic substances.” Here, the Talc Defendants argued that their activity was limited to the manufacture, design, and labeling of talc products, and that Louisiana precedent makes clear the difference between “storage, handling, or transportation” on one hand, and the “role manufacturers play on the other.” The court agreed, noting that the plaintiff made no allegations that his injuries occurred in the course of the storage, handling, or transportation of talc products; rather, the plaintiff’s complaint is “fully premised on the manufacturing and labeling” of the products. Thus, the court determined that the allegations as to the Talc Defendants did not fall within the scope of Louisiana’s punitive damages statute, and granted the motions to dismiss the plaintiff’s punitive damages claims as to the Talc Defendants.

Regarding the civil conspiracy claim, as to Johnson & Johnson, under Louisiana law, the plaintiff must “plead with particularity the conspiracy as well as the overt acts … taken in further of the conspiracy.” Here, Johnson & Johnson argued that the plaintiff failed to attribute particular acts to each conspirator and thus, failed to properly plead conspiracy to commit fraud. Here, however, the court determined that the plaintiff narrowed down its conspiracy claims to the Talc Defendants, and that the plaintiff noted specific acts performed by the Talc Defendants in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy to willfully misrepresent and suppress the truth of the alleged risks of their talc products. Although the plaintiff did not state explicitly which of the Talc Defendants committed each specific act, “at the pleading stage, the issue is whether fraud has been shown by detailing the issues of who, what, when, where, and how the alleged conspiracy took place.” For these reasons, the court determined that the civil conspiracy claim was pled sufficiently to survive the motion.

Read the full decision here.