Popcorn Lung is Popping (Up) Again

As we posted last week, there’s a new “popcorn lung” case on the block.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys everywhere must be licking their chops (and fingers) with news of the $7.2 million verdict in that fateful Colorado case.  While popcorn lung cases are certainly not new, this one is somewhat different. So, we figured it deserved more in depth treatment.  Typically, popcorn lung cases involve occupational exposure of employees who worked in a plant where a particular chemical was used as an ingredient in butter flavoring.  This new case involves a Plaintiff who just REALLY liked popcorn.  He brought suit claiming that eating popcorn injured him, and a jury paid him handily.

Popcorn lung is the term coined to refer to a relatively rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, which is somewhat similar to asbestosis.  One purported cause of bronchiolitis obliterans is the chemical diacetyl.  Diacetyl was used for many years as ingredient in artificial butter flavoring like the kind used on microwave popcorn.  The chemical was the subject of a number of lawsuits and multi-million-dollar verdicts in 2004 and 2005 arising from factory workers testing and inhaling the fumes from hundreds of bags of microwave popcorn a day.  At least some popcorn makers removed the chemical back in 2007

So how did this particular Plaintiff, who never worked around diacetyl, get popcorn lung?  By eating popcorn.   A LOT OF POPCORN.  This Plaintiff claims to have eaten two bags of popcorn everyday for 10 years.  He brought suit in 2008 against Glister-Mary Lee and Kroger, among others, claiming that by cooking and eating popcorn he developed bronchiolitis obliterans.  While eating two bags a day for 10 years may seem like a stretch, hospital workers apparently performed chemical testing in his kitchen and found levels of diacetyl similar to factory conditions (between .5 and 3 parts per million).  The Plaintiff’s attorneys argued that the defendants should have warned customers that inhaling the buttery aroma could put them at risk of lung damage.  A jury agreed with these claims and gave him $2.3 million for his reduced lung capacity and other damages.  They threw a $5 million in punitive just for good measure.

The question: will we see more such cases in the future or is this a one time fluke for a popcorn junkie?

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