A federal court in Colorado has reduced the damages awarded to a man who allegedly contracted bronchiolitis obliterans, a debilitating respiratory condition, after consuming microwave popcorn containing the butter flavoring compound diacetyl. Watson v. Dillon Cos., Inc., No. 08-91 (U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Colo., judgment entered September 5, 2013). The jury awarded the plaintiff and his wife more than $7 million, including punitive damages, apportioned among a number of defendants, and the court reduced the total award by more than half to $3.04 million with interest. Additional information about the lawsuit appears in issues 244, 454 and 480 of this Update.
The court agreed with defendant Gilster-Mary Lee, a private label food manufacturer, that a statutory cap applied to the $800,000 non-economic damages award against it because the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered his lung injury and its cause before a statutory cut-off in January 2008. The court further refused to double the statutory cap, finding that the case did not present exceptional circumstances. According to the court, the plaintiff was not completely disabled, he works part-time, takes walks outdoors with his wife, and can move upstairs and downstairs in his home. The court also noted that once he stopped eating popcorn, the plaintiff’s condition stabilized.
Because the court determined that the defendant ceased using diacetyl in its product before the case was filed, punitive damages could not exceed the amount of actual damages. Thus the court reduced a $5-million punitive award to $1.26 million. The court also refused the plaintiffs’ request to treble the damages for the defendants’ alleged bad faith; according to the court, the plaintiffs may not recover both punitive and treble damages.
As to attorney’s fees, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for nearly $1.4 million, agreeing with the defendants that the billing statement contained vague entries and included “many instances of duplicative or redundant charges.” The court also questioned the need for multiple attorneys and paralegals traveling from the Independence, Missouri, law firm to Colorado for certain pre-trial hearings. Reducing the number of hours by half and declining to adjust the lodestar figure upward, the court awarded the attorneys $826,500.