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Missouri man's lungs damaged by gas leak at work

Readers who follow workers’ compensation issues in Missouri may already know that most awards for cases of work illness and injury are capped at certain amounts. However, state law makes an exception for chronic conditions that develop over time. People claiming this sort of workplace injury may bring their case in civil court, outside the Missouri workers’ comp system. This means that the damages awarded may be significantly larger, possibly closer to the harm the plaintiff actually suffered.

A worker at a Missouri plant has won his lawsuit against his employer over severe lung damage he suffered by being exposed to toxic chemicals. His attorney told the jury that his client’s employer, Copeland Scroll Compressors in Lebanon, knowingly failed to warn the plaintiff about the risk. Instead, he said, his client was a “human guinea pig” for the company. The jury found for the plaintiff and awarded him $28 million in damages.

The chemical in question is used to cool cutting tools at the plant. A ventilator was supposed to keep the vapor away from the plaintiff’s work station, but it failed and caused the chemical to form a cloud around him.

Bacteria and mold in the vapor entered his lungs, eventually causing him to develop hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a chronic lung condition that limits their function. Though the man continued to work at Copeland, he had to transfer to another job.

Most of the award -- $23 million -- was punitive, or to punish the company for its negligence. The rest was for actual damages.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “’Guinea pig’ worker wins $28 million from Emerson unit,” Jim Gallagher, Nov. 24, 2013

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