The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 3, 2006

Mike Pound: Popcorn trials centered on life's value

By Mike Pound

Globe columnist

It always seemed to be about the money.

Sure, there was emotional testimony in all of the so-called popcorn trials about the lung disease that had stricken 30 or so workers at the Jasper Popcorn Co. plant, but in the end the discussions always centered around the money.

How much money is a person's life worth?

It's an impossible question to answer. But over and over from April 2004, when a Jasper County jury awarded Eric and Cassandra Peoples $20 million, until earlier this year, when both sides in the long legal battle reached cash settlements in almost all of the pending cases, Jasper County jurors were asked that question. What's a life worth? Twenty million? Thirty million? One million? Or zero?

Sure, in theory, the courtroom drama centered on a battle between lawyers for the workers who had been exposed to a chemical in a butter flavoring used at a popcorn plant in Jasper and lawyers for the companies that made the flavoring. But in each and every case, it seemed that the argument ultimately became about the money. How much money do you give someone who has lost his health? How much do you give someone who has had years, possibly decades of his life wiped away?

I covered several popcorn trials and never got over that uncomfortable feeling that came over me whenever the attorneys would start talking about the money. It always struck me as sort of unseemly to argue about the value on someone's life while that someone is sitting at a table just a few feet away.

I understood why the arguments took place. Ken McClain, the attorney for the workers, was trying to make sure that his clients received the best possible settlement. Mike Patton and Frank Woodside, the attorneys representing the companies, were trying to limit their clients' losses.

But still.

One of the trials I covered concerned a former plant worker named Linda Redman. Linda died Sunday. She was 57. Linda had been ill since the mid- to late 1990s. Evidence presented during her trial in April 2004 indicated that her illness was brought on by exposure to the butter flavoring. McClain presented medical experts who predicted that Linda eventually would need a double lung transplant. Linda never got that transplant because she never got healthy enough to go through the procedure.

So how much was Linda's life worth? Well, McClain asked the jury to award Linda $27 million. Patton and Woodside suggested that $4 million was enough. Before the jury announced its decision, the attorneys reached a settlement. By agreement, the amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

Nobody, at least during the trial, asked Linda how much money was enough. But on Monday, Linda's sister Donna Crampton told Globe reporter Susan Redden that her sister would have given all the money back "for her health."

I don't know how much money Linda got, but I hope it was closer to McClain's $27 million than it was to Patton and Woodside's $4 million. But even if it was, I know it wasn't enough.

You read about politicians all over the country who continue to dream up ways to limit how much money people can ask for in lawsuits like Linda's. They call it "tort reform." I'm not sure if "reform" is what it is or not.

But I don't know.

The people pushing the reform say that jury awards are getting out of hand. They say that folks in the medical profession are being squeezed by malpractice insurance. They say that big companies need protection in order to compete. I'm sure in some cases that's true, but again, I don't know.

I do know that people who are a lot smarter than I am can make pretty convincing arguments for their version of tort reform.

But when it comes right down to it, those people who are a lot smarter than I am aren't talking about gigantic jury awards. They're talking about people like Linda Redman. And I just think that if those people who are a lot smarter than I am could have talked to Linda before she died, maybe, just maybe, they might have come away with a different take on tort reform.

But I don't know.