A Laclede County jury has ordered an Emerson subsidiary to pay $28 million to a worker, labeled a “human guinea pig,” who claimed he suffered lung damage in the company’s Lebanon, Mo., compressor plant.
Emerson called the verdict “preposterous” and pledged an appeal.
Philip Berger, 56, developed inflammation of the lung after breathing contaminants from a chemical used to cool cutting tools, the suit claimed. His lawyer, Kenneth McClain, said Berger began coughing severely after a ventilator failed and a vapor cloud filled his work area.
Doctors diagnosed Berger with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, caused by exposure to mold and bacteria found in the fluid. McClain said it left the man with significantly reduced lung function.
McClain said the company used Berger as a “blue-collar guinea pig.” The firm knew the dangers of working with the fluid but didn’t warn employees or provide safety training, he said. According to the lawyer, the same ailment has affected 300 employees at 16 metal-working facilities since 1990.
The incident occurred at Copeland Scroll Compressors, a firm owned by Emerson Climate Technologies. Emerson is based in Ferguson. In an emailed statement, Copeland’s lead counsel, Joseph Orlet, said the plant is a “very safe work environment” where management follows chemical safety standards.
“Despite Mr. Berger’s claim that he had suffered permanent lung damage, he continued to work for Copeland until the trial with no change in duties,” Orlet said. “This included strenuous activity and 200 to 300 hours of overtime every year. Also, he rode his bicycle two miles each way to and from work three times a week, spent the last four years as a drummer in a rock band and personally remodeled his house last month. None of this seems consistent with the disability he claimed.”
McClain said that Berger works in a different area of the plant from where he was sickened.
The trial in Laclede County Circuit Court lasted two weeks, McClain said. The jury deliberated two hours on Friday before awarding $5 million in actual damages and $23 million in punitive damages.
Workplace injuries are usually settled in Missouri’s workers’ compensation system, where awards are typically much smaller. The Missouri Legislature several years ago changed the law to remove injuries that develop over time from the workers’ compensation system. That change, since reversed, opened the courts to Berger, said his lawyer.