Court Says Jury Can Decide Man's 'Popcorn Lung' Claims

Court Says Jury Can Decide Man's 'Popcorn Lung' Claims Photo: Rick Decker/iStockphoto.com

A Michigan man who alleges he developed “popcorn lung” from the buttery fragrance of at least 6,200 bags of the microwave snack over 19 years may present three products liability claims to a jury, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa on July 11 refused to grant summary judgment to International Flavors and Fragrances Inc., finding that Grand Rapids, Mich., popcorn lover David Stults raised sufficient questions of fact for a jury to decide his claims against the butter-flavoring manufacturer for failure to warn, breach of warranty and negligence.

In Stultz v. International Flavors and Fragrances, Stultz claims that it was his almost daily practice of inhaling the aroma of popcorn fresh from the microwave that led to his diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans, a progressive and irreversible respiratory disease that becomes worse with additional exposure and can be deadly.

Known as “popcorn lung,” the condition can result from exposure to the chemical diacetyl, which was used to give popcorn its buttery smell. The disease has plagued workers in popcorn processing and chemical flavoring plants; at one point, more than 300 lawsuits had been filed alleging ill health resulting from exposure to diacetyl vapors. The popcorn industry stopped using the chemical in 2005.

Arguing that the adverse effects of the chemical were well known, Stults blames the flavoring maker for failing to warn popcorn manufacturers about the dangers. (Stults also originally sued ConAgra Food Inc., General Mills Inc., American Pop Corn Co., and two other flavoring companies, and settlements were reached in several of the suits.)

In its motion for summary judgment, International Flavors argued that it could not be shown that, but for the company’s failure to warn popcorn manufacturers of the chemical’s ill-effects, the popcorn makers would have added a warning to product labels, and Stults would have heeded it.

Judge Bennett wrote that Stults provided sufficient evidence that International Flavors’ actions were proximate causes of Stults’ illness, and that these issues should be resolved by a jury.

Lisa Hoffman is a contributor to law.com.

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