updated 3/15/2004 8:30:20 PM ET 2004-03-16T01:30:20

A factory worker who claimed his lungs were ruined as a result of mixing flavoring oils used in microwave popcorn was awarded $20 million by a jury Monday.

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Eric Peoples was the first of 30 former workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. plant in Jasper to have his suit heard against the two makers of the butter flavoring. Following a morning of closing arguments, the jury deliberated for a little more than three hours before returning the verdict.

People cried and hugged his wife, Cassandra, as the jury ruled against International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary Bush Boake Allen Inc., the manufacturers of the flavoring. They were ordered to pay $18 million to Eric Peoples and $2 million to his wife for compensatory personal injury damages.

“We’re relieved that it’s over and our lives can get back to as normal as they can be,” Eric Peoples said. “At least for now, we’ll be able to spoil our children and let them forget for a while.”

Plaintiff requires lung transplant
Trial testimony showed if Peoples’ health remains stable, he could wait at least 10 years for a needed double-lung transplant; life expectancy of a lung transplant recipient is about 10 years.

“Eric feels like he’s in prison,” McClain told jurors. “He’s going to eventually go through the physical pain of a lung transplant, knowing that he’s going back to prison again because he’ll eventually get lung disease again.”

The attorneys for the manufacturers left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also has linked exposure to vapors from butter flavoring to lung disease in popcorn factory workers Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.

Peoples’ attorney, Ken McClain, said his next case in Jasper County is set for April 20. He also has cases pending in Illinois and Iowa.

“I want to keep the pressure up and get these cases done as soon as we can,” McClain said.

Chemical in butter flavoring to blame
Health officials insist people who microwave popcorn and eat it at home are not in danger, although the Environmental Protection Agency is studying the chemicals released into the air when a bag of microwave popcorn is popped.

Peoples’ suit charged that International Flavors and Fragrances and Bush Boake Allen knew their butter flavoring was hazardous, but failed to warn the southwest Missouri plant and its workers of the dangers or provide adequate safety instructions.

During their closing, attorneys for the two corporations told jurors their product is safe when handled properly. Information sent to popcorn plant officials warned the flavoring should be mixed in a well ventilated area and a respirator should be worn when heating it.

“We know beyond a shadow of doubt that if you use basic hygiene practices, you don’t have a problem in this plant,” said attorney Mike Patton, who represents New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances.

Gilster-Mary Lee, which was not named in the suit, remodeled the plant after government investigators in 2001 linked a chemical in the butter flavoring, diacetyl, to the workers’ illnesses. There have been no reports of illness since the ventilation was improved and workers began wearing respirators, Patton said.

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