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'Popcorn Lung' Verdict Could Spark Rash of Lawsuits

A case of "popcorn lung" that struck a Colorado man may start infecting its way through a number of companies that make the popular microwave product.

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Wayne Watson won a $7.2 million judgment Wednesday against supermarket chain owner Kroger as well as Gilster-Mary Lee and Dillon Companies, according to wire service accounts.

His lawsuit charged that the companies were responsible either for making or distributing microwave popcorn that contains diacetyl, which is used to create the "butter" flavor in the product.

While Watson's victory is eye-popping enough on its own, the larger significance is that legal experts consider the suit to be a test case for a rash of other suits likely to be brought. Plaintiffs have been scoring victories against popcorn makers for years, but most of them came from workers in the plants.

Watson's attorney told Reuters that the case is the first in which a consumer has successfully brought an action.

In Watson's case, he said he ate two bags of microwave popcorn each day and contracted a rare lung disease which a jury, after a day and a half of deliberations, ruled was caused by ingesting diacetyl.

Similar cases already have been filed, including one brought against Con-Agra.

The New York law firm of Lieff Cabreser is handling many similar cases, which have been brought against both distributors and manufacturers.

"Popcorn worker’s lung is a possibly fatal and nonreversible lung disease that comes with symptoms that include shortness of breath and wheezing," attorney Jacob Plattenberger, writing in The Legal Examiner, said of the diacetyl cases. "Its connection with popcorn has came from many factory workers who developed the disorder after inhaling the diacetyl fumes from the production of bags of microwave popcorn."

"With many people working, unprotected, with diacetyl everyday and consumers risking their health using products containing diacetyl in their homes, one would hope that the replacement chemicals manufacturers utilize eliminate potential dangers: not maintain, or worse, intensify them," he added. "Yet, as in the case of popcorn factory workers, this does not always seem to be the case."

Kroger shares traded narrowly lower the day after the announcement.

Coincidentally, the firm also announced Wednesday that it was recalling spinach sold at grocery stores in 15 states.

Nevertheless, Guggenheim actually raised its earnings estimates for the firm and reiterated a "buy" call on Kroger stock.

Con-Agra shares also surged after the company reported earnings of 44 cents per share that easily beat Wall Street estimates.

Companies involved in the Watson case said they plan to appeal, Reuters reported.

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