Company settles suits with 19 popcorn plant workers

? A butter flavoring manufacturer ordered to pay more than $53 million in damages to employees of a southwest Missouri popcorn plant who blamed the product for lung disease has settled with 19 other plaintiffs.

The settlement was announced Tuesday by Ken McClain, an attorney representing 15 people whose lawsuits were awaiting trial in Jasper County Circuit Court. McClain also represents four others who had been denied damages by a jury, but had that verdict thrown out when it was learned a juror had failed to disclose relevant information during jury selection.

McClain said the signed settlement agreements were delivered Sept. 30 to attorneys for New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary, Bush Boake Allen Inc.

Terms were not disclosed.

Other than to reiterate the company’s position that the product is safe if handled and used properly, Gail Belmuth, spokeswoman for International Flavors, which acquired Bush Boake Allen several years ago, declined comment.

She said company attorneys believe a gag order remains technically in effect until the judge accepts the settlement agreements. McClain said he believed settlement of the cases still on the court’s docket relieved him of the requirement not to comment about them.

Jasper Popcorn Co. and Glister-Mary Lee Corp., which bought the popcorn factory in 1999, were not defendants in the lawsuits.

People who worked at the plant in Jasper, about 135 miles south of Kansas City, claimed that exposure to diacetyl, a chemical used in the butter flavoring, caused bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that obstructs the lungs. None of the workers have died, but McClain said several remain close to needing lung transplants.

The plaintiffs said the manufacturers should have known the flavorings were hazardous and that they failed to warn employees of the dangers or provide safety instructions. McClain said what happened at the Jasper plant has led the flavoring industry and the government to start looking more carefully at potential hazards in the workplace from flavoring products.

“This has virtually been an unregulated industry that has ignored the risks of their products,” McClain said.

The settlements announced this week do not affect jury verdicts awarding almost $53 million to four workers whose cases, now on appeal, were tried earlier, or settlements reached with six other workers, either out of court or during their trials.

“I think the defendants recognized that overall we’d be successful at trial and were therefore willing to reach settlement on all pending cases,” McClain said.

However, 12 cases filed last year by popcorn plant workers have been transferred to U.S. District Court at the request of the defendants.