DC DISPATCH-Zvi Ryzman (photo below, left) recalls laughing a bit the first time he heard about asbestos litigation involving barber shop talcum powder, just because “it didn’t make any sense, asbestos was building and construction.”
It’s not funny now.
This week, in a New Jersey courtroom more than 2,000 miles away from City of Commerce, California where about 1,000 people work for Ryzman’s famous beauty-brand company American International Industries (AII), a jury is hearing evidence in the latest trial that has pushed talc products like his Clubman brand and Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder into civil litigation.
“It could put us out of business very easily,” Ryzman said this week.
He also said that attending opening arguments last week was “astounding,” in part because the plaintiffs wanted him held accountable for things that happened well before he purchased Clubman in 1987, but also because instead of an array of talc products, it was as if “it is only Clubman [that] exists.”
“They accused a lot of companies of causing [the plaintiffs’] cancer, but only one of them came to court to defend themselves, and that's Mr. Ryzman and American International Industries,” explained Robert Thackston, the defense attorney representing Mr. Ryzman’s company.
The role of defendant in an asbestos lawsuit might seem an odd chapter for Ryzman, who is an icon in Southern California’s Jewish community and an internationally recognized religious scholar with several books to his credit. He is also active in the philanthropic community via the Ryzman Foundation, especially in support of Israel.
His biography is the stuff of Hollywood scripts, albeit better suited to the Frank Capra era. In 1971, a Jewish immigrant, he falls in love with a girl from California and moves to America to marry her. . .he starts a beauty brand business after winning a stockpile of faux nails on the toss of a coin. . .he recalls wearing the long nails himself because he couldn’t afford a model. . .flash forward five decades, and his four children and five grandchildren all work in the family business. He’s grown from one guy in his garage to a company with more than 40 beauty bands that, by rough estimates, supports 10,000 people in its “extended employee family.”
Asbestos lawsuits generally are among America’s longest-running personal injury litigation. By some measures, the lawsuits nationwide add up to a $10 billion-a-year industry, roughly as large as the National Football League. While many of the lawsuits involve the sorts of companies you might associate with asbestos, like mining and manufacturing firms, the latest trend has been talcum cases that frequently allege that the powder was contaminated with asbestos.
In the New Jersey Clubman case, AII is being sued by two plaintiffs, Dwayne Johnson of Florida and Margaret Lashley of North Carolina, alleging that AII’s Clubman Talcum Powder was contaminated with asbestos fibers, causing the plaintiffs to contract mesothelioma, a fatal disease of the lung (pleural) for Johnson or stomach (peritoneal) for Lashley. Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive were also among those sued but resolved before trial. The New Jersey venue for the trial is the headquarters of Johnson & Johnson.
In opening arguments, Thackston told the jury that AII’s Clubman is a brand of talcum powder marketed to men that is brushed on the back of necks to remove hairs after getting a haircut in a barbershop. He noted that Ryzman did not create this product, but rather purchased the Clubman brand from The Neslemur Company in 1987, along with many other brands of beauty products. He also indicated it was not until large jury awards were obtained in the last few years against companies like Johnson & Johnson, that AII was sued by the same plaintiffs’ firms.
The cancer victims, represented by Joseph Mandia of the prominent Texas-based asbestos-plaintiff’s firm, Simon, Greenstone, Panatier, told the New Brunswick jury that when Mr. Ryzman purchased the Clubman brand in 1987 he should have known about the risk that there could possibly be asbestos in the talc and the hazard this would pose to consumers like his clients. Thackston countered by indicating that there is no evidence either plaintiff has mesothelioma, that epidemiological studies show no increased risk of mesothelioma to barbers or patrons of barbershops, and that every test except for the plaintiffs’ expert’s tests found no asbestos in Clubman talcum powder.
He even noted that “there is irony” in claiming Mr. Ryzman should have been aware of alleged asbestos contamination when one of plaintiffs’ own experts did not know.
“So you might wonder, how is Mr. Ryzman supposed to know something that the occupational medicine witness. . .didn't know until 2007? That's 20 years after [they] say my client should have known. . . I'm looking forward to hearing that explanation, that Mr. Ryzman should have known when their own experts didn’t know,” he told the jury.
Interestingly enough, because Clubman was a premier brand of talc and relied on higher levels of purity it turns out that Ryzman has only ever purchased and sold pharmaceutical grade talc from one supplier who has certified as the manufacturer that the talc was asbestos free under the U.S. Pharmacopeia as recognized by the FDA.
Mr. Mandia countered that his client’s treaters did not rule out mesothelioma for either of them. However, in an unusual argument for asbestos-related trials, the defense even contends that neither victim has the alleged asbestos-related form of mesothelioma disease, arguing that Mr. Johnson’s treating physician diagnosed him with a very rare thymic cancer that was treated five years ago and remains in remission. His doctors do not believe he has a cancer that can be caused by asbestos- mesothelioma. As for Ms. Lashley, the defense argues that her treating physician indicated during deposition that her peritoneal mesothelioma does not have anything to do with asbestos.
For Ryzman, the trials leave his family and employees in a place of "100 percent stress," and it seems a good time to be a man of faith. He says the system seems very cruel, and you have to fight the cruelty.
“That’s my job,” he added. “I have to breathe, I go on.”
(Sara Corcoran is publisher of the National Courts Monitor and writes for CityWatch, Daily Koz, and other news outlets.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.