A state appeals court reinstated a lawsuit Tuesday by the widow of a Solano County man who died of cancer after using Johnson & Johnson talcum powder for most of his life.
A judge had dismissed the suit by Douglas Strobel and his wife, Jo Ann Strobel, saying their medical witnesses had no firsthand evidence that the talcum in J&J’s Baby Powder contained cancer-causing asbestos during the 60 years Strobel used it. But the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said there was enough evidence to send the case to a jury.
The medical experts testified that asbestos was present in the ore that Johnson & Johnson mined for its talc, the court said. It said jurors would not have to accept the company’s claim that it had screened its final product carefully to eliminate any trace of asbestos.
The evidence shows “long-term use of a talcum powder product alleged to contain asbestos by a mesothelioma sufferer who was not exposed to any other known source of asbestos,” Justice Jon Streeter said in the 3-0 ruling.
Strobel said his mother used the Johnson & Johnson product to powder his diapers soon after he was born in 1951. As a boy, he said, he put the talc in his shoes after Little League games, to reduce odor in his feet, and then kept using it two or three times a week through 2014.
He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February 2019 and died in April 2020, at age 68, after Superior Court Judge Wendy Getty had dismissed the lawsuit. Asbestos fibers, sometimes found in talc, are the only known cause of mesothelioma, an often-fatal cancer of the lungs or heart. Johnson & Johnson’s medical witnesses testified, however, that the illness can also arise from other carcinogens or unknown causes.
In ruling that the Strobels lacked admissible evidence that the talcum powder had caused his illness, Getty noted that their witnesses had produced samples of the product containing asbestos, but none from the period in which Douglas Strobel had used it. She also cited testimony by a Johnson & Johnson medical witness that its powder was asbestos-free.
But the appeals court cited testimony of asbestos in the talcum ore, and said government reports and academic studies had found talcum products may contain asbestos.
“In the absence of evidence explaining how asbestos in the source ore would have been eliminated in the process of milling talc, that is enough to support more than a mere possibility that the accused product here… was a substantial factor in causing Doug Strobel to develop mesothelioma,” Streeter said.
A lawyer for Johnson & Johnson was not immediately available for comment. The company could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
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