When we go into work each day, most of us have the expectation that the company under which we’re employed has taken basic steps in order to keep us as safe as possible. We don’t expect to experience extreme pain or debilitation from just another day on the job. Unfortunately, companies exist to turn a profit, and sometimes this expectation is a fallacy. That was the case of a Humphrey Farrington & MCClain PC client who won a $5 million settlement when he was exposed to diacetyl, a butter flavoring chemical that was once commonly used.
George Giles was a mechanic for a Ventura Foods located in St. Joseph from 1997 to 2003, and showed signs of respiratory issues as early as 1999. Even though he suffered a number of chronic and progressive injuries by the time he parted ways with the company in 2003, the damage was already done. He was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans (or popcorn lung) in 2011.
When popcorn lung progressives far enough, it results in permanent lung damage due to scarring from regular inflammation of airways. Respiratory problems are caused after the damaged lung tissues lead to narrow airways that restrict breathing. Symptoms of popcorn lung vary greatly, and can present as subtle and mild, or painfully overwhelming and severe. The condition can be especially dangerous and difficult to diagnose in subjects who already have other respiratory conditions like asthma. Common symptoms include a dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, exhaustion, rapid breathing, or skin, mouth, nose and eye irritation.
Other causes of popcorn lung include fumes from chemicals like ammonia and chlorine, air particles and dust from industrial locations, welding fumes, and gases like nitrous oxide. The condition may develop after the subject experiences a respiratory infection, has a transplant, takes certain kinds of drugs like penicillamine, or already has underlying immune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
It took Giles another two years to file a lawsuit, which he did in 2013. His attorneys claimed that the food industry that used the chemical diacetyl to flavor butter already knew about the popcorn lung link, and could have acted to prevent workers from being exposed. It was especially negligent because employees were not provided any warning about the potential side effects of some of the chemicals with which they would be working.
This isn’t the first diacetyl-related victory for the prestigious law firm. They won a $30.4 verdict in 2010 and three more in 2004 and 2005 that led to a grand total of a whopping $50 million. Although these monies were distributed to workers who were exposed to the dangerous chemicals, the law firm alleges that money can’t reimburse the hardships which some of these people are now forced to cope with now on a daily basis.
Sadly, lawsuits like the aforementioned are common–and necessary–in the continuing fight to protect workers from companies and corporations that would put profits over the health and wellbeing of their workers.