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June 30, 2004

Popcorn butter: suppliers win one

In the series of lawsuits filed by workers at a Carthage, Mo. food-processing plant over lung disablement caused by inhaling concentrations of popcorn butter flavoring, the score now stands at: one $20 million win for a plaintiff worker and his wife; one worker's case settled just before a jury was to return its verdict; and, now, one defense verdict. "After about five hours of deliberation, jurors ruled 9-3 Monday night that flavoring makers International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary, Bush Boake Allen Inc., were not responsible for the injuries of Jasper Popcorn Co. plant worker Velma Ingalls, 34, of Iantha, and former employees Dustin Smith, 25, of Alba, Evelyn Standhardt, 60, of Carthage, and Marge Unruh, 51, of Jasper. All four contracted the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans." Plaintiff's attorney Ken McClain said the trial "went as well as the other cases" but "just had a different jury". ("Jury rules against four popcorn employees", AP/Springfield News-Leader, Jun. 30). More: "How could juries hearing essentially the same evidence reach widely different conclusions? It happens all the time, said Daniel Whitworth, a Joplin lawyer who has argued a number of personal-injury cases." (Mike Pound, "Ruling shocks former worker", Joplin Globe, Jun. 30).

The company that actually owns the factory where the injuries occurred was not named in the suit. Which is to say that the whole idea was to bypass the workers' compensation system, with its definite but limited awards, in favor of turning the case into a product liability suit, where the amounts that can be sued for are not so limited (see letters, May 7). Thus the plaintiff's lawyers representing the Missouri workers have played down the direct employer's role in the calamity in favor of playing up the flavoring suppliers' failure to issue stronger warnings. In the case this week, however, defense attorneys Frank Woodside and Mike Patton successfully linked the workers' illnesses to poor practice at the factory. Quoting the AP account: "Patton noted that no one at the plant has become ill since the mixing area was enclosed and workers started wearing respirators. 'I expect the jury understood the deficiencies of the industrial hygiene at the popcorn plant,' Woodside said after the verdict was announced."

Posted by Walter Olson at 08:45 AM | TrackBack (1)

Employment Law
Products Liability



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