[author: Michele Bowman]
A Colorado man who claims he developed lung problems from inhaling a chemical used in buttered microwave popcorn has won a $7.2 million jury verdict against the manufacturer and grocery-store sellers of the popcorn.
A federal jury on September 19 agreed with plaintiff Wayne Watson, 59, that his condition – bronchiolitis obliterans – was caused by inhaling diacetyl, a chemical that was until recently used to make that buttery microwave popcorn flavor. Gilster-Mary Lee, the manufacturer; and Kroger and Dillons grocery stores should have put warning labels on the product, said the jury.
Lawyers for the supermarket chain responded to Watson’s demand for labeling by saying the defendants “might as well have warned that there are aliens popping out of the bags because there’s just as much support for that,” according to one news report. They plan to appeal the verdict.
Bronchiolitis obliterans, an inflammatory obstruction of the tiny airways called bronchioles, is marked by a dry cough, shortness of breath with exertion, fatigue and wheezing. Watson developed the rare condition, known as “popcorn lung,” after eating two bags of butter-flavored microwave popcorn a day starting in 1999 for 10 years and reportedly even huffing the hot air that comes out of a hot bag fresh from the microwave.
Watson was diagnosed in 2007. He filed lawsuits and settled first with FONA International, the maker of the butter flavoring.
Disease First Discovered in Factory Workers
Diacetyl has also been linked to the illnesses of workers in factories that make the microwave popcorn. In 2004, a jury awarded a worker at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in Jasper, Mo. $20 million for lung damage; 29 other workers had cases pending, according to another news report.
“Gilster-Mary Lee knew for years they had a problem because their own workers were getting sick,” said Wilson in an interview after the verdict. “They did absolutely no testing whatsoever that the consumer might be at risk. The only experiment they did was go sell the product and see what happens. They rolled the dice and lost.”
The doctor who diagnosed Watson testified at trial, and it was her testimony that Watson said swayed the jury. She had served as a consultant to the flavorings institute and knew that the factory workers had suffered the same disease.
Popcorn Lung Hotspots Popping Up
Kenneth McClain, an attorney with Humphrey Farrington & McClain, P.C. in Independence, Mo., represented Watson as well as many of the popcorn factory workers. “Popcorn lung disease occurs most frequently in regions where the manufacture of microwave popcorn is a big industry,” according to McClain’s firm’s website, which indicates that the firm has settled or won over $60 million in other popcorn lung cases since 2004.
Popcorn lung “hotspots” are located in California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, according to McClain’s firm.
If you are concerned about a lung condition and think it may be related to a product, contact a products liability lawyer in your state on Lawyers.com.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock.