The “Popcorn Lung” Case: A Lesson in Marketing to the Jury

There has been a $7 million verdict in Wayne Watson v. Dillon Companies, Inc. et al., in Colorado. Watson is a products liability case, and the basic allegation is that microwaveable popcorn gave the Plaintiff lung disease. Hence, the “Popcorn Lung” case, as these cases are being called. When I first heard of this type of litigation, my first thought was that this was yet another case mocking the integrity of the American judicial system, and I was frankly surprised that a federal judge had allowed this abomination to survive summary judgment. After all, the thought that microwaveable popcorn—of all things—could cause lung disease strikes me as utterly preposterous.

But after some investigation, I’ve been forced to temper my initial judgment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m buying what the plaintiff is selling, even though the jury apparently did. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s as implausible as I first believed. Here’s why.

The theory of the case was not that microwaveable popcorn per se causes lung disease. It’s that a particular chemical that was commonly used to give microwaveable popcorn its buttery taste—diacetyl—can cause lung disease. And this argument is not new. In the early 2000s, there were a series of cases brought by folks who worked in commercial popcorn production facilities who made the same claim; that because of their long-term exposure to significant amounts of diacetyl in the air, they developed certain forms of lung disease. So ostensibly, there may be some science to back up the claims in those cases, which may be applicable to the Watson case.

Let’s assume – just for the sake of this post, mind you – that the research in the commercial popcorn workers’ cases is somehow founded. We’ve not reviewed all that literature, nor have we looked into the expert reports in the Watson case. But bear with us. Even if that research is founded, there seems to be a leap of faith that must be taken to get from those cases to Watson’s. Watson wasn’t a commercial popcorn worker. However, his claim is that during the corn-popping process, diacetyl is vaporized into aerosol form, and like the commercial popcorn workers, he inhaled the diacetyl which is now claimed to have caused his lung disease. We would expect Watson’s dose to be significantly less than the doses presumably inhaled by commercial popcorn workers—even though Watson claims to have eaten 2 to 3 bags of microwaveable popcorn every day for several years. The critical scientific question, then, is where does a person’s exposure to diacetyl cross the line into the danger zone?

I don’t think the importance of this question can be overstated. After all, I’ve eaten microwaveable popcorn. You’ve eaten microwaveable popcorn. And probably every member of that jury has eaten microwaveable popcorn (although after the trial, we suspect that the jurors who found the defendants liable may be cutting down on their microwavable popcorn intake). Yet, somehow, the icy hand of Orville Redenbacher reached out from beyond the grave and struck Watson down with popcorn-induced lung disease? That seems hard to believe. To win this case, plaintiff’s counsel needed to enable the jury to overcome their natural suspicion towards these claims, and the science is going to have to be pretty darn good.  Apparently, it worked.

But there’s a marketing point here to be made. “Popcorn Lung” sounds ridiculous. The name trivializes the purported issues and conjures up the same ghosts that haunt the “McDonald’s Coffee” case. To many an average person, this verdict will represent everything that is wrong with the American judicial system. The proposition that microwaveable popcorn—a staple of each American household and every family movie night—is associated with lung disease will be difficult for many readers to overcome.  The jury somehow overcame that skepticism. If I’m plaintiff’s counsel, the enemy here should be diacetyl, if the science truly supports that theory. Sure, it was applied to microwaveable popcorn. But that product is safe. Perhaps that explains it.

Comments

  1. Steven: I think you are dead on with this analysis. Dose defines the poison as they say. And as in almost any toxic exposure case, comparing occupational exposures to acute consumer exposures is fraught with problems.

  2. Diacetyl is a liquid under standard conditions. Given that it is not only used in processing but is also a frequent component inside of artificial butter flavorings that go into vegetable oil imitation products, I wouldn’t be surprised if the microwave heating caused some separation of the faux-butter components to include vaporizing the liquid diacetyl into something inhaled rather than ingested. It’s entirely possible that chronic low-dose exposure could have led to respiratory cell death which would require a cumulative effect before the problem became symptomatic.

    Even with low exposure and extremely low risk for people who consume much less popcorn, it’s worth noting that several popcorn formulations are seeing reduced diacetyl or the ingredient being eliminated from formulations altogether.