On Wednesday, a federal court jury in Colorado awarded Wayne Watson $7.2 million in damages for a respiratory disease he allegedly developed from inhaling toxic fumes found in microwave popcorn. Unusual though Watson’s case may sound, jurors agreed that his symptoms were consistent with a real condition known as “popcorn lung.”
The decision marks just the latest plaintiff’s verdict in a string of similar lawsuits over the past 15 years, that link diacetyl, a chemical used in some artificial popcorn flavoring, with irreversible lung damage. The Missouri-based law firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain -- which owns the domain name popcornlung.com and boast that the firm is “the leader in popcorn lung litigation” -- state on their website that they have won multiple personal injury verdicts for clients. The highest payouts they have received range from $2.7 million to $20 million.
However, all of the plaintiffs represented in those cases were popcorn plant workers who were exposed to the toxic chemical over years of working in a contaminated environment. Watson, on the other hand, is the first consumer to receive the diagnosis, according to his attorney.
Watson, a 59-year-old resident of Denver, was diagnosed with the condition by doctors in 2007 at National Jewish Health, a treatment and research center that specializes in respiratory illness.
Cecile Rose, director of cccupational and environmental medicine at NJH and one of the physicians who treated Watson, was allegedly the first person to make a causal link between Watson’s symptoms and diacetyl poisoning. Rose, who served as a witness in the case and had previously consulted with flavorings manufacturers, allegedly made the connection when she asked Watson if he had been exposed to large quantities of popcorn.
In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, when the case was still pending, Rose spoke about the details of what appear to be Watson’s story, although she did not identify him by name.
“I said to him, ‘This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?’” said Rose. “His jaw dropped and he said, ‘How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.’”
Watson has stated that before his diagnosis he would often eat 2-3 bags of microwave popcorn a day.
“They thought that no consumer would ever be exposed to enough of it to make a difference, well they rolled the dice and they lost,” Watson in an interview with ABC News. "It's kind of a weird story isn't it? A guy gets sick by breathing in the toxic fumes of diacetyl that is on butter-flavored microwave popcorn in the sanctity of his own kitchen… I probably look like a fairly healthy guy but I only have, on a good day, about 53 percent lung capacity.”
Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., the Illinois-based company that manufactures the popcorn, was found to be 80 percent liable for the damages, for not warning customers about the health hazards of the ingredients.
Attorneys for the defense argued that Watson’s symptoms were caused by previous work, where he was exposed to carpet-cleaning chemicals.
The company issued a statement saying, "Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. has manufactured and provided safe, quality microwave popcorn to consumers for over two decades. We are certainly very disappointed by the decision of the jury in this case in light of the very clear evidence which was presented, including the millions of consumers who have safely used and enjoyed microwave popcorn since it was introduced. We are currently evaluating our next steps in this matter and will assert all rights available to us under the law."