'Popcorn Lung' Couple Gets $20M Award, Files for Bankruptcy

Broke man may still need double-lung transplant.

ByABC News
October 15, 2012, 1:08 PM

Oct. 15, 2012 -- Eric and Cassandra Peoples won a $20 million judgment. Now, they're broke.

The Joplin, Mo., couple made national headlines when, in 2004, a jury awarded Eric $18 million and Cassandra $2 million, for what were determined at the time to be heath injuries that Eric suffered from workplace exposure to the chemical diacetyl, an ingredient used to give popcorn its buttery flavor and aroma.

In the years since Peoples filed his suit, other workers elsewhere around the U.S. have sued for the same injury and won.

As reported by ABC News, Dutch researchers were first to establish a relationship between the chemical and a condition known as "popcorn lung," which first came to light among U.S. popcorn workers in 2001 at a plant making microwaveable popcorn.

According to U.S. researcher David Michaels, a former assistant secretary of energy, heated diacetyl produces a gas not only toxic but potentially lethal. "It just devastates their lungs," he told ABC News. Manufacturers have paid out in excess of $100 million in damages to workers suffering popcorn lung.

"Good Morning America" recently reported on Wayne Watson, whose exposure was not work-related. Watson was awarded $7 million after coming down with popcorn lung as a result of his habit of eating two to three bags a day of microwave popcorn at home.

Symptoms include dry cough, shortness of breath and wheezing, according to an OSHA "hazard communication" on the chemical, which also goes under the name butanedione. The formal name for "popcorn lung" is Bronchiolitis obliterans.

When Eric Peoples brought his lawsuit against his then-employers, a flavor-and-fragrance maker, doctors testified that he eventually would need a double-lung transplant, according to the Joplin Globe. The newspaper says it was never clear how much of the verdict money the Peoples ever received, since an unstated portion, according to attorneys, was meant to be given to other workers injured at the same plant.

A phone call by ABC News to the Peoples was not returned. Their attorney chose not to comment.

The Peoples' bankruptcy petition, filed in the Western District of Missouri, Joplin, on Sept. 10, does not describe the luxuries one might associate with a $20 million windfall. It lists personal property assets of not quite $33,000. The couple also own a home valued at $700,000 on 10.5 acres. The filing claims the couple's total liabilities are in excess of $611,000.

Among the personal property listed are two Honda automobiles, A Chrysler PT Cruiser and a Kawasaki Mule; a bedroom set, dryer, end tables, china, lamps, a VCR, a microwave oven and $50 worth of camera equipment.