A case of ‘Popcorn Lung’: why civil liability is working just fine

Two weeks ago, a Colorado man won a $7.2 million verdict against microwave popcorn company Gilster Mary-Lee Corp., as well as food distributors the Kroger Co. and Dillon Companies Inc., to compensate him for rare health problems caused by his consumption of popcorn.
After eating two bags of popcorn each day for 10 years – and inhaling massive amounts of a diacetyl, the artificial chemical that gives popcorn its buttery taste, over time – Wayne Watson developed a severe respiratory condition known as “Popcorn Lung,” which essentially cut his lung capacity in half.
At first glance, we might view Watson’s case as being ridiculous. It seems like he is trying to take advantage of the court system – to engage in legal theft from the deep pockets of business – when he is actually the one responsible for causing his own injury. We are terribly tempted to say, “Suck it up. You brought this on yourself buddy.”
And these societal sentiments can be clearly seen by looking at the comments posted in response to a recent online ABC news article: One person says, “So he ate 2 bags of popcorn for 10 years and blames the popcorn company. Wow, no wonder everyone thinks us Americans are stupid. We will pay a guy like this $7 million dollar for being an idiot.”
Others ask, “Why are we rewarding gluttony?” or question how this is different from suing Pepsi for developing diabetes or call Mr. Watson a “shameful clown.”
Many people see this headline and conclude that the system which allows this outcome to occur must be fundamentally flawed. And an army of folks who call themselves “tort reformers” proclaim just that.
They say that both businesses and our courts are overburdened by “frivolous” cases that lack merit – that the tremendous volume of such cases leads to inefficiency in the legal system and inflates the costs that businesses must pay towards insurance premiums in order to protect themselves from unsubstantiated legal issues.
To deal with these problems, they actively lobby to place caps on the amount of damages that can be awarded (so as to avoid “excessive” verdicts) and initiate legislation, often in the form of loser-pay-all laws, which would provide disincentives for injured parties to initiate “frivolous” cases.
Certainly “reform” sounds like a pleasant, promising word and $7 Million seems excessive, but we should not be led to believe that the civil justice system is fundamentally broken because that simply isn’t the case.
First, it is vitally important to understand the ends toward which the civil liability system works.
The 7th Amendment to the Constitution gives individuals the right to a jury trial in civil disputes.
Practically, this helps keep businesses accountable for their actions and ensures that the products and services that they produce do not compromise consumer health or well-being in an unexpected manner.
Businesses must constantly be vigilant about issues concerning liability because they know that any individual who is adversely affected by their actions has a right to a day in court. As consumers, this should provide us comfort.
Second, when we actually take more time to look at the facts surrounding many “frivolous cases” – like Mr. Watson’s – our perspective should dramatically change.
Mr. Watson’s case has merit. He did not intend to injure himself, and no one would reasonably expect his popcorn consumption – even as copious as it was – to cause intense respiratory problems, which will severely limit his mobility and require costly medical care for the rest of his life.
Moreover, the popcorn manufacturer was well aware of the health risks associated with high exposure to diacetyl; in the past, plant workers had developed the same health complications.
But the company, having weighed the costs and benefits of both silence and disclosure, concluded that no consumer would ever be exposed to enough of the chemical for it to matter. So they rolled the dice and did nothing.
By ruling in favor of the plaintiff, the jury was essentially saying that Gilster Mary-Lee was negligent – that they shirked on their duty to properly warn consumers of the health risks associated with consumption.
A large portion of the amount awarded to Mr. Watson was in the form of punitive damages, meant to punish the company for its inaction and ensure that businesses adjust their policies to properly warn consumers in the future.
Finally, we should take note of the numerous mechanisms that already exist under the current system to dismiss cases that lack merit from the courts.
Defenders of the current system point to the vast array of actions that can be taken throughout the civil trial process to ensure that time is not wasted and justice is served.
The contingency fee framework, under which many civil liability cases are worked, guarantees that lawyers will only take legitimate cases that are likely to win in court, and it also provides greater access to the court system for those who can’t afford representation.
Summary judgment can be used as a tool to quickly and easily dismiss frivolous cases, affording the judge, in many cases, discretion to order the loser to pay the winner’s attorney fees.
In some cases, judges can order directed verdicts, which tell the jury that they must rule in a certain way, preventing one side from winning as a matter of law. And of course, settlement outside of court and the appeals process can reduce the amount of large jury verdicts.
Ultimately, the court system, like any institution that involves flawed people, is not perfect. Certainly it seems unfair that, because the rich can afford better representation via hotshot lawyers, they often enjoy an advantage in the court room – regardless of the facts actually surrounding a case.
Without a doubt, law is a business, and I think it’s totally reasonable to have a healthy distaste for the work that many of our nation’s lawyers engage in for the sole purpose of profit.
Moreover, we must realize that there is always a certain degree of uncertainty when a case goes to trial – a small chance that the jury will get it wrong.
In the end, though, we should rest on the belief that the tiny fraction of cases that actually make it to trial are reasonable, that a jury of 9 adults, with diverse life experiences, will get things right on average, and that the system is structured in a manner that will provide justice 99% of the time.

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