“Popcorn Lung” Lawsuit Nets Plaintiff $7.2 Million Judgment

What better way to unwind in the middle of a hectic work week than by kicking back with your family, putting in your favorite DVD and popping a fresh bag of popcorn in the microwave?  How about getting $7.2 million for doing it?

Wayne Watson, 59, just won an incredible multi-million dollar judgment for damages he suffered as a result of contracting “popcorn lung.”  Apparently inhaling the vapor from freshly popped microwave popcorn can increase your risk of getting lung cancer.  At least that’s what the Colorado plaintiff alleged in his product liability lawsuit against defendants Glister-Mary Lee Corp., Kroger Co. and a host of other supermarket chains.

Some of you may remember this story from a few years back.  Watson claimed he ate two bags of popcorn a day and would breathe in the vapors every time, leading to his current condition as diagnosed by his doctor five years ago.  However, the defense argued his damages were actually caused by a carpet cleaner he used.  Ultimately, the jury believed Watson’s tale.  For now he can sit pretty knowing that he has money in the bank; that is until the obligatory appeal is filed and heard.

Popcorn lung is a relatively new discovery in the medical world.  It’s caused by inhaling fumes from dicetyl, a chemical additive used in artificial butter.  Companies have removed the ingredient in microwaveable popcorn after its link to lung conditions was revealed.  However, from a legal perspective, as Watson’s case has shown, that’s still enough of a basis to launch one heck of a lawsuit.

Now it may seem odd to some people that a party could be held liable for harm that they might not have known was even possible at the time.  However, that, dear readers, is how product liability lawsuits work.  They are designed to compensate victims for damages caused by product defects, even accidental and unknown ones.

Product liability lawsuits come in two flavors: negligence and strict liability.  The one that applies depends on the product and type of harm, as well as the laws in the jurisdiction.  In negligent product liability, a plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to take proper steps to ensure their product’s safety.  This is the theory that Watson used and generally is a much more costly and difficult to win because it must be shown that the accident was caused by the defendant’s failure to take proper steps.

While that might not sound like such a big deal, in comparison to strict liability the difference in is huge.  In those types of cases, all a plaintiff needs to do to win is show that the defendant’s product actually caused the harm alleged, regardless of fault.  As you can imagine, strict liability’s application is much more limited – it usually only applies in cases of ultra dangerous activities, like explosives or toxic chemicals.

It seems like Watson won his case largely because of the lack of proper warning labels on the products.  This coupled with reports of previous cases of popcorn factory workers developing similar conditions after years of inhaling the allegedly toxic fake butter fumes probably sealed the defendants’ fate and Watson’s victory.

The case may seem unfair to some, but it ultimately demonstrates the reason why product liability recovery must be so broad so as to cover seemingly unforeseeable damages.  The onus of ensuring a product’s safety should always falls on the product maker, not government agencies and certainly not the consumer.  Manufacturers have the best understanding of their goods and should take all the necessary steps to make they’re safe before unleashing them on the public.

Even in situations where they do everything humanly possible and someone still gets injured, to argue that a company shouldn’t be held accountable would be the same as saying a safe driver shouldn’t be responsible for crashing into a person.  It just doesn’t make sense and certainly wouldn’t be fair.

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