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Archive for Thursday, March 4, 2004

Former popcorn worker labors to give testimony

Plaintiff describes how life diminished after contracting lung-destroying disease

March 4, 2004

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— Former microwave popcorn factory worker Eric Peoples told jurors Wednesday the biggest loss in his life since being diagnosed with an irreversible lung disease was not being able to "rough house" with his two young children.

"In my home, if you were on the floor, you were fair game," Peoples said.

Peoples used a portable oxygen tank to ease his breathing as he testified in his lawsuit against International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and a subsidiary. His suit claims his lungs were ruined after months of mixing their butter flavoring oils at a popcorn factory in southwest Missouri.

Attorneys on both sides agreed to break up Peoples' testimony into short segments because his lung capacity is severely diminished and he tires easily.

As a result, Peoples' testimony Tuesday was limited to about 25 minutes and focused on his life before working at a Gilster-Mary Lee plant in Jasper and being diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that obstructs the lungs. He is one of 30 plaintiffs who allege the manufacturers should have known their butter flavorings were hazardous and failed to warn employees of the dangers or provide safety instructions.

Gilster-Mary Lee is not a defendant in the suit.

Attorneys for International Flavors and subsidiary Bush Boake Allen Inc. said their product was safe. They say Peoples' illness resulted from other factors, including the failure of the popcorn plant owner to instruct workers on how to cook the product.

Jurors were shown numerous pictures of Peoples' childhood, as well as with wife Cassandra and their children -- Audrianna, 10, and Brantley, 8.

Peoples, now 32, said the birth of his children was among the highlights of his life. There was lots of laughter, tumbling on the floor and playing games prior to his illness, he said.

"The time that was not spent doing that, I feel was wasted time," Peoples said.

In other testimony, Dr. Elbert Trulock, a transplant specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said Peoples' lungs were severely impaired and he would eventually need a double-lung transplant.

Because the postoperative life expectancy of a lung transplant patient is only 10 years, and Peoples can survive for some time longer while treating the disease with medication, oxygen and exercise, he is not on the active list for surgery, Trulock said.

Trulock said he believed an unidentified "agent" at the plant made Peoples ill.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigators suspect a chemical in the butter flavoring called diacetyl caused the damage.

Testimony has indicated Peoples primarily came in contact with the butter flavoring made by Bush Boake Allen.

Patton said in opening statements that the chemical had been safely used worldwide for more than 50 years, including in products such as cheese, yogurt and chewing gum. He said Peoples worked in a plant that was not properly ventilated.

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