Missouri Couple Who Won $20M in Suit Going Bankrupt

October 17, 2012

Eight years after a southwest Missouri couple won a $20 million verdict against the makers of a butter flavoring used at a popcorn plant, the two have filed for bankruptcy.

In addition to the Chapter 7 filing last month in Springfield, Eric and Cassandra Peoples of Carthage are being forced to sell the home they built for $3.9 million.

The Joplin Globe reported that the couple listed the current value of their residence and 10.5 acres of land at $700,000 and personal property assets of nearly $33,000. They list liabilities of more than $611,000.

The couple sued International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and Bush Boake Allen Inc., which made butter flavoring used at a popcorn plant in Jasper where Eric Peoples worked. Their case was the first of several brought by workers and their spouses against three different makes of the butter flavoring.

The suit claimed Eric Peoples developed an irreversible lung disease as a result of exposure to diacetyl, a chemical that was present in the butter flavoring. At trial, doctors testified that he would eventually need a double-lung transplant.

A Jasper County jury awarded Eric Peoples $18 million and his wife $2 million in 2004.

The couple did not return a call from the Globe seeking comment.

It’s unclear how much of the verdict money the couple received. Eric Peoples said at the time that his attorney’s firm was to receive 35 percent of the award, and their attorney, Ken McClain, indicated that a portion of it was to be spread among other workers involved in the lawsuits.

Among the unsecured claims the couple list in their bankruptcy petition is a Nov. 1, 2011, judgment in Jasper County Circuit Court to Jeff Neely, the contractor who built their home. He sued them in August 2011, claiming they still owed him $107,147.

The couple failed to respond to the lawsuit in a timely manner, and a judge granted Neely a default judgment at an annual interest rate of 9 percent.

The couple filed a motion last December asking the judge to set aside the default judgment because of difficulties, including a downturn in Eric Peoples’ health. Their motion also asserted a basis for a counterclaim against Neely because they said the house initially was estimated to cost $400,000, but skyrocketed to more than $3.9 million.

Neither the Peoples’ motion nor the bankruptcy petition explains the $3.2 million difference between what they claimed to have paid to build the home and what they say the property is worth now.

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