Traditionally, workplace injuries in Missouri have been channeled through the state’s workers’ compensation system. But the state legislature amended the law several years ago to exempt injuries that develop over a period of time. Because of that reform, one such case culminated in a $28 million award this November.

As a result of the amended law, an attorney for Philip Berger, 56, was able to file a personal injury lawsuit claiming that a subsidiary of Emerson caused his client to suffer from lung damage at the firm’s Lebanon, Missouri compressor plant.

During the trial, Berger’s lawyer said that the company used his client as a “blue-collar guinea pig” and knowingly allowed him to work at its facility in the presence of harmful chemicals used to cool cutting tools. They neither warned him of the danger nor provided him with safety training.

Berger later developed inflammation of the lung after breathing contaminants from the fluid solution, and doctors diagnosed him with hypersensitivity pneumonitis triggered by exposure to mold and bacteria from the chemical. His attorney said that, as a result, Berger was left with significantly reduced lung function.

After a two-week trial, a Laclede County Circuit Court jury awarded Berger $5 million in actual damages and $23 million in punitive damages.

Emerson called the verdict “preposterous” and stated that it planned to appeal it.

The Legislature had already returned Missouri to a workers’-compensation-only system of handling workplace injuries prior to the “guinea pig worker” award. But the Laclede County case will stand as a high-profile example of the way compensation for workplace injuries may be calculated when a workers’ compensation system does not rule.