LOS ANGELES – A pathological researcher called as a witness by Jay Steumke the attorney for plaintiff Carolyn Weirick in her lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson recounted how asbestos fibers can make their way to sit disguised and unknown in the lungs for decades, until turning into fatal mesothelioma.
“You have a cell with a genetic error in a gene that let’s say controls cell growth - a single error,” Dr. Arnold R. Brody, pathologist for the Tulane School of Medicine told a jury. “It can look and act normal for months and it’s not growing in an odd way yet. Eventually it (cell) has to divide. It makes a field of similar cells. Another cell gets a genetic error.”
Damaged cells multiplying, continue in some cases for years until a tumor is formed, Brody said.
Trial coverage in the Los Angeles Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Brody’s testimony came during the second day of trial alleging the Johnson & Johnson baby powder Weirick used for years caused her to develop mesothelioma, a terminal disease. The case is the latest among thousands of women across the country who have filed suit against the baby powder maker alleging it gave them ovarian cancer.
Weirick’s is unique in that it alleges mesothelioma, a much rarer disease with a reported 3,200 cases per year.
Brody, a retired professor emeritus, specialized in lung disorder biology and response to toxic agents. He said the human body has natural defenses that trap and throw out most toxins.
“Like pollen or bacteria, asbestos fibers have to get past our defense mechanisms,” Brody said.
Moisture in the nose and throat traps some of the foreign particles trying to enter the body. Those that make it down the airwaves (bronchial tube) toward the lungs face a second potential trap called cilia, hair-like linings that sweep them up and out as though in an escalator where they can be swallowed or spit back out the mouth. Mucus also helps protect airways.
White blood cells called macrophage cells act as policemen attempting to digest cellular debris and foreign substances. Brody exhibited a slide photo taken from the lung of a motorcyclist killed in an accident in which such a cell could be seen attempting to digest and do away with a pollen particle.
Despite such defenses, asbestos fibers can eventually prevail depending on the amount of exposure, Brody said.
“If a person breathes an asbestos fiber, can it get past the moisture in the mouth and nose and past the mucus (cilia) escalator?” Steumke asked.
“Oh sure,” Brody responded. “Particles can line up in the air flow and move down the center of the airway (windpipe) and don’t touch the mucus or cilia at all. The airspace can provide a pathway for asbestos to reach the target cells.”
Nevertheless, Brody said mesothelioma is a “dose response” disease; a single asbestos fiber won’t likely cause you to get it, but the more asbestos fibers you inhale, the more likely you are.
Steumke asked if to a degree of reasonable certainty based on Werick’s long-term use of Johnson & Johnson talc powder, it could be assumed the substance substantially contributed to the woman’s mesothelioma.
“Yes,” Brody answered.
The defense objected to the question, which Judge Margaret Oldendorf sustained.
Cross examination by the attorney for Johnson & Johnson, Chris Vejnoska, attacked the notion that asbestos exposure automatically results in mesothelioma, and also questioned Brody’s pay and history as a witness for asbestos plaintiffs.
“I asked a hypothetical,” Vejnoska said. “If talc did not contain asbestos, you would agree that the use of that talc did not increase this individual's risk of developing mesothelioma, correct?”
You’ve testified for Greenstone Panatier (law firm for the plaintiff) dozens of times?” Vejnoska asked.
“Correct,” Brody answered.
“You’ve made a lot of money.”
Vejnoska asked if Brody had made $4 million testifying for plaintiffs in asbestos cases, about 99 percent of his testimony.
“Typically true,” Brody responded.
“You have no knowledge of her (Weirich’s) medical condition?” Vejnoska asked.
“That’s right,” Brody said.
“You’ve done no analysis of Johnson & Johnson baby powder?” Vejnoska asked.
“That’s true,” Brody said.
Vejnoska said millions of asbestos fibers which people are routinely exposed to existing naturally in the environment (in air or water) cause no ill effects.
“The fact that we have millions and millions of asbestos fibers in our bodies does not mean we are more likely to develop mesothelioma? He asked.