Judge reports threats, harassment over J&J talc bankruptcy

A bottle of Johnson and Johnson Baby Powder. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Illustration

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  • Judge revealed the harassment at a hearing on a J&J subsidiary’s effort to block two states’ consumer protection lawsuits

(Reuters) – A U.S. bankruptcy judge on Wednesday said he has received threats related to the bankruptcy of a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary he is overseeing, with some messages suggesting that the case is an effort to “cover up” harms allegedly caused by J&J’s talc products.

Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan in Trenton, New Jersey said at a hearing that he and his staff have been getting angry and menacing messages through phone calls, voicemails, emails and social media posts since his February decision not to dismiss the bankruptcy case of LTL Management LLC.

J&J created the subsidiary in October, assigned its talc liabilities to it and put it in bankruptcy a few days later, in an attempt to resolve approximately 38,000 lawsuits alleging that its Baby Powder and other talc products caused mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.

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J&J, which has denied the allegations and said that its products are safe, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Kaplan did not say how many threats the court had received or who they were from, but cited a specific tweet from August which called him a “murder cover upper” and included a vague threat that “your day is coming” as an example.

The judge said he admired “the zealous advocacy on emotionally charged issues” from the lawyers on the case, but asked them to “have awareness about the words” they use, cautioning them that overheated rhetoric can invite harassment and undermine the court system.

Kaplan pointed to a recent court filing from plaintiffs’ attorneys that said the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction is “not for sale,” saying it unfairly implied he has personally benefited from LTL’s bankruptcy.

Clay Thompson of Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd, the firm that made the filing, said the threats were “despicable.” The “not for sale” rhetoric was not aimed at Kaplan personally, but was meant to criticize J&J’s strategy of using the bankruptcy system to block the cancer lawsuits, Thompson said.

Kaplan’s remarks came during a hearing to consider New Mexico and Mississippi’s bid to continue their states’ lawsuits accusing J&J of misleading consumers about the cancer risks associated with talc products.

The states have argued that they are not bound by a previous court order that paused the private plaintiffs’ lawsuits during LTL’s bankruptcy. Kaplan does not have the authority to block states from enforcing their consumer protection laws, the states’ attorney Robert Malone said Wednesday.

LTL attorney Gregory Gordon countered that the states’ lawsuits are “inextricably intertwined” with the private talc claims, saying they all must be paused to allow LTL time to reach a restructuring deal.

J&J set aside $2 billion to resolve talc claims in bankruptcy and has argued that the bankruptcy case offers a fairer and faster way to resolve all cancer-related claims than continued litigation in other courts.

The case is LTL Management v. State of New Mexico, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey, No. 22-01231

For LTL: Gregory Gordon of Jones Day

For New Mexico and Mississippi: Robert Malone of Gibbons

Read more:

J&J to end global sales of talc-based baby powder

Justice Dept. bankruptcy watchdog sides with cancer plaintiffs in J&J talc appeal

Special Report: Inside J&J’s secret plan to cap litigation payouts to cancer victims

Judge greenlights J&J strategy to resolve talc lawsuits in bankruptcy court

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