ALAMEDA – A witness for the defense, a pulmonologist, said Tuesday that plaintiff Terry Leavitt was one of those unlucky people who developed mesothelioma “spontaneously” for no known reason and not from baby powder made by Johnson & Johnson.
“There are people who develop it (mesothelioma) without any external agent,” said Dr. David Weill, leader of a heart-lung transplant program at Stanford University and owner of Weill Consulting Group.
Coverage of the trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson claiming baby powder she used for 30 years was tainted with asbestos and caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the linings of the lungs.
Michael Brown, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, called Weill to testify seeking to convince a jury that talcum baby powder was not the cause of Leavitt’s illness.
“My belief is her mesothelioma was spontaneous in nature,” Weill said.
Weill said exposure to talc powder does not cause mesothelioma.
He told the jury human lungs have a system of defenses that challenge foreign bodies (fibers) starting with nasal passages, tongue and mouth.
“You can sneeze it (fibers) out,” he said. “The tongue can prevent it from getting into the airwaves and the trachea and bronchi, this is a maze to be navigated.”
The cilia, hair-like structures in the windpipe, can also can trap foreign particles allowing them to be moved upward and sneezed or coughed out. Weill compared it to an escalator.
In addition, he said macrophages, cells found in tissues, help to drain the lymphatic system moving foreign particles to get them out of the lungs.
Weill said the general human population is able to handle a substantial burden of fibers in the body without developing disease including 40 million tremolite fibers, chrysotile, amosite or crocidolite, minerals that can be asbestos or non-asbestos.
"These can be breathed in the ambient air with no risk of disease," Weill said.
Generally urban areas (big cities) have higher concentrations of breathed airborne fibers.
“In small doses the lung defenses can handle it,” Weill said.
However, Weill added that when the body is subjected to large amounts of toxins over a long period of time, the risk of developing disease goes up.
In Leavitt’s case, based on his review of her medical records, Weill said she did not have the usual mesothelioma “marker” indicators including no scarring of the lungs called asbestosis, no pleural plaques (collagen fibers in the lungs indicating exposure), and no asbestos bodies.
Weill said 75 percent to 90 percent of mesothelioma cases show pleural plaques.
Under cross examination Joseph Satterley questioned Weill.
“You’re not a pathologist?” Satterley asked.
“I’m not,” Weill said.
“Not an Epidemeologist?”
“You’ve never measured dust that someone breathes?” Satterley asked.
You’re not a geologist, a mineralogist?”
“You don’t put cosmetic talc under a microscope, correct?”
“No,” Weill said.
Weill agreed he had not done research on the three major areas where Johnson & Johnson talc powder has been mined, Italy, Vermont and Korea.
You agree it (mesothelioma) is a painful death?” Satterley asked.
“I would agree,” Weill said.
“You would agree she (Leavitt) will likely die from this disease?”
“I would agree.”
Weill said he had testified in 360 asbestos-related court cases, most for defendants in mesothelioma trials.
“You always come to the same opinion (talc does not cause mesothelioma)?” Satterley asked.
“That’s right,” Weill responded.
“In Mrs. Leavitt’s case you already formed an opinion?” Satterley asked.
“I would not change for one case,” Weill said.
Weill stated he was paid $600 per hour for his testimony and had billed $6,600 for 11 hours of work in Leavitt’s case, $12,625 in total.
He agreed he has billed approximately $1 million per year since 2014 providing testimony and work in such court cases.
“I’m busy,” Weill said.
Sattlerley called attention to a report from a governmental agency in France which said that cleavage fragments, broken off pieces of mineral particles, can be a cause of mesothelioma.
“That’s what they said,” Weill conceded, but noted the opinion was published by a French regulatory body and not from a specific research project.
Weill testified he had served as a witness for a number of corporations including General Motors, International Harvester and Kelly- Moore (paint company).