A St. Louis County jury awarded $745 million on Sept. 8 to the parents of a woman who was killed by a driver who had passed out after abusing nitrous oxide.
Marissa Politte, 25, was leaving work in 2020 when then-20-year-old Trenton Geiger struck and killed her with an SUV. He allegedly had consumed nitrous oxide, which is not legal for recreational purposes.
“Nitrous oxide is a food propellant, and they don’t sell any food. So what else are they selling it for,” said John M. Simon of The Simon Law Firm, who represented the parents. “So we alleged that they sold it to him as an inhalant and sued them under a negligence theory and a strict private liability theory.”
The nitrous oxide that Geiger bought at Coughing Cardinal was of the brand Whip-It! Politte’s parents presented evidence that Whip-It! distributor United Brands had targeted so-called head shops, which sell drug paraphernalia. According to Simon, an employee was told to tone it down after emailing company leadership about the issue. The attorney also said the company was previously sued and warned because of the practice, which he said is hurting and killing people.
“And nonetheless, they were selling and marketing to this market, targeting people like Trent,” he said. “So it turned from just a kid making a bad decision to a company who is making money off those bad decisions, knowing that they’re going to happen.”
United Brands argued the company is no more responsible for Geiger’s impaired driving than Anheuser-Busch would be for someone driving drunk. But alcohol is legally sold for human consumption, whereas nitrous oxide is not, Simon countered.
He said the large award was needed to stop United Brands from continuing this practice and warn other companies doing the same that they can be held accountable.
“This isn’t just about sending a message to United Brands. It’s a message to the entire industry,” he said.
Attorneys for United Brands, Coughing Cardinal and Trenton Geiger could not be reached.
$745 million verdict
Allocation of Fault: 70 percent United Brands, 20 percent Coughing Cardinal, 10 percent Trenton Geiger
Breakdown: $20 million compensatory damages, $700 million aggravating circumstances against United Brands, $25 aggravating circumstances against Coughing Cardinal
Venue: St. Louis County Circuit Court
Case Number/Date: 20SL-CC06071/Sept. 8, 2023
Judge: John N. Borbonus
Plaintiffs’ Experts: Jack Fincham, Oracle, Arizona (pharmacy); Dr. Rostislav Ignatov, West Palm Beach, Florida (addiction medicine); Dr. Michael Marlin (toxicology)
Defendants’ Experts: Dr. Steven Hanus, Evanston, Illinois (psychology), Dr. Jerrold Leiken, Chicago, Illinois (toxicology)
Caption: Karen Chaplin and Jason Politte v. Trenton Geiger, United Brands Corporation and Coughing Cardinal Inc.
Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: John M. Simon and John G. Simon, The Simon Law Firm, St. Louis; David Grebel, Niemeyer, Grebel & Kruse, St. Louis
Defendants’ Attorneys: Barbara L. Graham and James C. Morris, Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, St. Louis; James C. Morrow and Claudio E. Molteni, Morrow Willnauer Church, Kansas City