Jury awards Chicago-area factory worker millions in 'popcorn lung' suit

Posted: 9/4/2010

From Chicago Tribune:

 A South Elgin factory worker suffering from a life-threatening disease known as "popcorn lung" is bracing for an appeal after a Cook County jury last month awarded him $30.4 million against a supplier of a chemical found in butter-flavored microwave popcorn.

The verdict Aug. 13 was thought to be the largest award in the country to an individual in a lawsuit involving diacetyl, according to the man's attorney, Ken McClain. Attorneys for the supplier, BASF, are appealing.

Gerardo Solis, 45, has worked for various popcorn and popcorn-flavoring plants in the Chicago area since 1987. Over time, Solis, a father of three, developed bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare respiratory disease that has destroyed 75 percent of his lungs, leaving him with the minimum lung capacity a person needs to live. Fireworks displays or second-hand smoke can send Solis into brutal coughing fits, which can cause him to pass out.

Eventually, he'll need a lung transplant, his attorney said.

"His pain suffering, the loss of life expectancy, these are quality- of-life issues that you can't always put a dollar amount on," McClain said. Solis declined to comment.

Initially, 15 companies and one trade organization were named in the complaint filed in 2006. All companies but BASF settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

"BASF disputed the claims and is disappointed with the jury verdict," Maureen Paukert, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an e-mail. "The company will appeal and is confident its position will be vindicated on appeal if not corrected before by the trial judge."

According to the lawsuit, BASF failed to warn Solis and his co-workers about, among other things, the health and safety hazards associated with diacetyl, failed to conduct adequate testing on the harmfulness of the chemical, and failed to advise workers to wear respirators and chemical suits. The result, the lawsuit alleged, was that Solis continues to suffer physical pain and emotional distress while losing his wage-earning capabilities.

McClain alleged that BASF was particularly culpable because it knew of diacetyl's harmful effects as far back as 1993 when its parent company, BASF AG, found the chemical damaged the lung tissue of rats in a laboratory experiment.

Paukert declined to comment on the alleged study.

Diacetyl is a naturally occurring compound that gives butter its flavor. Studies have shown that the heated vapors of the chemical diacetyl lead to a breakdown of the airway branches deep in the lungs. The lung scarring is irreversible and can be fatal.

In 2002 a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigation of a popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo., found a direct link between former workers who developed "popcorn lung" and their exposure to the chemical.

California and the Federal Drug Administration are now considering banning the chemical, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering limiting the level of exposure workers can have to the chemical, although no new rules or laws have been enacted despite years of study.

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