Plaintiff in Johnson & Johnson baby powder case tells jury about the ordeal of mesothelioma

By John Sammon | Feb 20, 2019

ALAMEDA – Terry Leavitt, the woman suing Johnson & Johnson for the baby powder she claims caused her to develop mesothelioma, appeared on the witness stand Wednesday, maintaining a mostly positive demeanor but fighting back tears when talking about the impact of her disease on her family.

“You want to keep fighting this disease?” Joseph Satterley, Leavitt’s attorney, asked.

“Absolutely,” Leavitt answered.

Coverage of the trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

The suit alleges that asbestos-tainted baby powder Leavitt used from the time her mother powdered her as an infant continuing into adulthood gave her mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the linings of the lungs. The disease is considered incurable and fatal anywhere from a few months to five years after diagnosis.

Leavitt told a jury she would seek newly developing treatments including amino therapy.

“I told the doctors whatever we have is what I want to do,” she said.

A former physical therapist married with two teenage daughters, Leavitt described her early life, growing up, her work and meeting her husband Dean McElroy.

Satterley exhibited family photos including a wedding picture that brought tears to Leavitt’s eyes.

Her ordeal started with back pain in 2017. Surgery was recommended but a pre-operative X-ray revealed a mass in her right lung.

The mass was found to be malignant.

“What was your first reaction?” Satterley asked.

“I was devastated and surprised,” Leavitt said. “It was shock.”

Leavitt was born in the Philippines in 1966. Her mother was Filipino and her father a U.S. serviceman. She said powder was used with her cloth diapers partly because of the humid conditions of the country.

“With my sister the baby powder was used after our bath,” Leavitt said. “It was a tradition.”

Later the family moved to the Bay Area and Leavitt continued using the product as a young girl into adulthood as both a base for makeup and a dry shampoo. Leavitt demonstrated for the jury how she would apply the powder into her hair and rub it in.

“I used it to dull shine and to tone down freckles,” she explained.

Leavitt estimated she used the powder as a shampoo at least four times a week.

“Did you see dust in the air?” Satterley asked.

“Yes,” Leavitt answered.

“Did you believe it would cause you harm?”

“No.”

“Was there a warning on the bottle that you could get sick or develop cancer?”

“No.”

Leavitt said she missed her job as a physical therapist.

“To help get people to be [physically] independent,” she said. “It was such a great gift to me to see it happen.”

She added she had also taken an active role as a mom involved in her children’s activities at school.

Leavitt described the ordeal of going through surgery in September 2017 and then chemotherapy treatments and radiology.

“The effects were horrible,” she said. “I would throw up, get nauseated. I would try to get up out of bed and eat something and stay hydrated, but would go back to bed.”

The radiation was targeted at the lung and Leavitt said her lung function declined leaving her with increasing fatigue. Each time she would seem make something of a recovery, she indicated she would relapse and each subsequent comeback would get harder.

Bad news came last November when doctors told her there had been a reoccurrence of mesothelioma in the lymph nodes.

“Surgery there was not an option,” Leavitt said.

Asked how her illness had impacted her husband and daughters, Leavitt wept.

“My husband’s a wreck,” she said. “He’s a rock, the sun around which we orbit, but one time we were coming down the stairs and he just started crying.”

She said the emotional toll of the uncertainty and having to scale back her normal activities because of her weakened condition has been hard on her and her family.

“It’s part of our life,” she said.

Satterley exhibited a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby powder.

“Did you trust in it?” he asked.

“Our whole family did,” Leavitt said. “I had no reason to doubt.”

“What’s your outlook with regards to the future?” 

“Mesothelioma does not have a good outcome,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt added she is currently living from one medical scan to the next, the scans taken every three months.

“The doctors say if we can just make it to the next scan,” she said.

Offered a chance to cross examine, Michael Brown, the attorney for Johnson & Johnson, declined.

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