Jury Awards Popcorn Worker $15 Million

A jury has awarded $15 million in damages to a former employee of Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. and his wife on the grounds that the man suffered irreparable lung damage from breathing in butter flavoring fumes at the company's microwave popcorn factory in Jasper, Mo.

A lawsuit filed by Richard Brand, a former maintenance worker at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant, and his wife, Lana, against the makers of the butter flavoring -- New York-based International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary, Bush Boake Allen Inc. -- claimed that butter flavoring chemicals produced by the two companies were hazardous and that the defendants failed to warn plant workers of the dangers of inhaling the fumes.

Richard Brand contends that he developed a rare and irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans -- also known as Popcorn Packer's Lung -- from exposure to diacetyl, a chemical in the butter flavoring sold by the defendants to Gilster-Mary Lee.

A jury in the Circuit Court of Jasper awarded Richard Brand $12 million and Lana Brand $3 million following a 2-week trial.

Richard Brand is one of 30 current and former workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in Jasper to sue the two manufacturers of the butter flavoring.

In March 2004, a Missouri jury awarded $20 million to Eric Peoples, a former Jasper popcorn worker, and his wife, Cassandra, for lung damages he suffered while working at the Jasper plant. As Peoples -- who said he eventually he will require a double-lung transplant -- was deemed to be suffering the gravest health problems, his was the first lawsuit to be heard.

The Brands' lawsuit was the sixth of 27 lawsuits filed by the 30 workers to go to trial, according to the Joplin Globe in Missouri.

The Brands' lawyers argued that the two companies were aware of the health risks of inhaling diacetyl and neglected to warn the Jasper plant about those hazards. The defense team contended that the flavoring manufacturers warned the plant -- it claimed that MSDS on the flavoring products advised users to provide proper ventilation and wear safety gear -- but the popcorn plant failed to implement those safety protections for its workers.

The defense team also asserted that there is a lack of scientific evidence linking the diacetyl in butter flavoring to bronchiolitis obliterans.

In May 2000, eight former Jasper popcorn workers were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, although no cause was identified at the time. In 2002, NIOSH researchers said they suspected diacetyl might be the culprit.

A NIOSH study published in 2002 suggested there was a strong relationship between cumulative exposure to diacetyl and lung problems. NIOSH researchers evaluated 117 Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn workers and found that workers had 2 1/2 times the expected rates of chronic cough and shortness of breath and twice the expected rates of physician-diagnosed asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Following the NIOSH investigation, Gilster-Mary Lee, which is not named in the lawsuits, remodeled the plant and said it ordered workers to wear respirators.

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