Mary Harris worked at a popcorn shop in a Texas mall for 17 years. When she was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, she filed a lawsuit against 54 defendants, 10 of which are related companies, all of which produce or distribute flavorings that contain diacetyl.
Diacetyl is used as a flavoring agent in products such as microwave popcorn, flavored coffee, cake mixes, prepackaged frosting, and many other types of foods and is used to mimic the creamy flavor of butter. It has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, better known as “popcorn lung” for the five microwave popcorn plant workers that developed the lung disease about 15 years ago.
It is a rare disease where the smallest airways of the lungs become scarred and restricted. Popcorn lung symptoms include shortness of breath and a cough, and are very similar to the symptoms of COPD. The only treatment is a lung transplant.
In the past, popcorn factory workers and even some consumers have obtained substantial verdicts in their favor through lawsuits that are similar to Harris’, with plaintiffs suffering from lung diseases allegedly caused from the chemicals in the popcorn.
Her attorney advised that Harris was not, in fact, working in a popcorn factory. “This was a situation where she was popping corn in a retail store. This is a different-type setting than we have seen in the past,” he said.
Harris’ claims against the companies are for strict products liability, alleging design, manufacturing and warnings defects. Her claims also include negligence, gross negligence and misrepresentation. Harris is seeking compensatory as well as punitive damages.