Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A Lennox man who lost 60 percent of his lung capacity from a disease he contracted while making fake butter at a Foothill Ranch artificial flavors plant won a $2.6 million verdict, his attorney said Friday.

Tanu Vatuvei, 38, contracted a disease called bronchiolitis obliterans from exposure to the chemical diacetyl, attorney Jacob Plattenberger said.

“He’s in rough shape. He’s a young guy and it’s a really horrible disease to have,” the lawyer said.

At 40 percent lung capacity, Vatuvei is not yet a candidate for a lung transplant, but the disease, which turns bronchial tissue into scar tissue, is irreversible and is “relatively new, so the doctors don’t know how much further his condition will decline,” Plattenberger said.

Vatuvei’s physician testified that “if he gets worse, there’s no treatment for him other than a double lung transplant,” the attorney said.

The disease he contracted at age 34 has taken its toll on Vatuvei’s mental state, as well, Plattenberger said.

“He’s afraid if he goes to sleep he won’t wake up,” the attorney said.

A four-week trial in Orange County Superior Court concluded Jan. 30 with the verdict in favor of Vatuvei, who worked with the diacetyl chemical on a daily basis for nearly 10 years at Mission Flavors Fragrances Inc., according to his attorney.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argued that Citrus and Allied Essences Ltd., which supplied most of the chemical used at Mission’s plant while Vatuvei worked there, was aware of the hazards of breathing it in, but did nothing to warn the employees about it, Plattenberger said.

A whistleblower in the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association “made a confidential call” to the trade group about diacetyl, Plattenberger said. A couple of people contracted the disease in the same plant, which was statistically as unusual as winning the lottery, he said.

It could not be determined what caused the disease in those cases, but a 2001 outbreak in a popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri, narrowed the culprit down to diacetyl, Plattenberger said.

In 2000, the maker of the chemical disclosed a 1993 German study that indicated its hazards, Plattenberger said. “So people knew, certainly FEMA knew” of the hazards, he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He said Vatuvei may receive more damages because multiple defendants named in the lawsuit settled before trial and a judge has to determine the plaintiff’s ultimate award, adding that a workmen’s compensation claim is also pending.

But Ryan McQueeney, an attorney representing Citrus and Allied Essences Ltd., said the final judgment “will be less than $1.5 million after setoffs, over half-a-million dollars less than Mr. Vatuvei’s final settlement demand, and substantially less than the $15 million that Mr. Vatuvei’s attorney requested from the jury.”

“Citrus and Allied Essences Ltd. is disappointed with the verdict,” he said. “Citrus believes that its warnings and labels did provide proper handling instructions to Mission Flavors, but that Mission Flavors failed to take any precautions to protect its employees, including Mr. Vatuvei.

“Flavoring chemicals, including diacetyl, are safe when handled appropriately and Citrus and Allied stands by its position that had Mission Flavors followed the warnings given to it by Citrus and Allied, Mr. Vatuvei would not have been harmed,” McQueeney said.

Richard Pisano Jr., president of Citrus, said: “Thousands of people work with these substances every day in this country and do so without suffering harm. It is only when a company fails to use proper precautions, including ventilation and respiratory protection, and fails to properly train its employees, that these substances become dangerous.”

City News Service

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