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John Simon: Jury delivers $745 million verdict to family of Ballwin woman killed in Whip-It! abuse crash

Erin Heffernan St. Louis Post-Dispatch September 10, 2023

CLAYTON — A St. Louis County jury reached a $745 million verdict Friday for the parents of a woman killed on a sidewalk outside a Ballwin urgent care by a driver who huffed inhalants right before the crash.

The two-week trial centered on whether a company that distributes nitrous oxide under the name Whip-It! conspired with a local smoke shop to sell the product to customers they knew intended to illegally inhale the gas to get high.

The suit was filed on behalf of the parents of Marissa Politte, 25, who was struck by an SUV killed on Oct. 18, 2020, while she was leaving her workplace at the Ballwin Total Access Urgent Care at 2501 Clarkson Road.

Police discovered that the 20-year-old driver, Trenton Geiger, had been abusing Whip-It! nitrous oxide, which caused him to pass out behind the wheel and crash. Ballwin police found Whip-It! containers they say Geiger threw into a nearby woods shortly after the crash, according to court documents.

Geiger purchased the Whip-It! canisters at Des Peres smoke shop, Coughing Cardinal, before he struck and killed Politte, evidence during the trial showed.

“This is about more than money. My clients would give $750 million to have three minutes with their daughter again,” said Johnny M. Simon, trial attorney for Politte’s parents along with his father John G. Simon. “This is about holding companies that are profiting off selling an addictive inhalant accountable.”

Simon said that, on its face, Whip-It! is sold as a food propellant to make things like whipped cream, but evidence at trial showed that a large portion of its business model relies on selling the gas, sometimes called laughing gas, to smoke shops, where it’s often targeted to young people who become addicted.

“They’re selling poison disguised as something else,” Simon said.

The jury on Friday found United Brands Products Design Development, the company that distributes Whip-It!, 70% liable; the smoke shop, Coughing Cardinal LLC, 20% liable; and Gieger 10% liable in the case.

Politte’s parents, Karen Chaplin and Jason Politte, both testified during the trial about the devastating loss of their daughter, who they described as a kind, young radiologic technologist who loved owls and the color purple.

“Their testimony was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen in a courtroom,” Simon said.

Simon’s team presented evidence that included testimony from a former United Brands warehouse employee who estimated 75% of the company’s product went to smoke shops, emails between company staff and smoke shop workers and evidence of the company’s marketing campaigns directed at young people in the concert and party scenes.

Evidence also included records of past deaths and injuries related to abuse of the product from across the country.

Simon said Sunday he believes the civil trial was the first time a Whip-It! abuse case has been brought to a jury in the U.S. He said he hopes it will lead to reforms.

“The company knew that selling to head shops caused other innocent people to die and continued selling to head shops, anyway,” Simon said. “This verdict sends a message to this entire industry.”

Attorneys for United Brands argued during the trial that Geiger alone should be responsible for misusing the product and ignoring warning labels advising users not to inhale it.

“United Brands is no more responsible for Mr. Geiger’s illegal impaired driving than Anheuser-Busch would be for a drunk driving accident,” they wrote in court documents.

The $745 million verdict was made up of $20 million in compensatory damages along with $700 million in punitive damages against United Brands and $25 million in punitive damages against Coughing Cardinal.

The defendants now have the right to appeal in the case. Attorneys for United Brands and Coughing Cardinal could not immediately be reached Sunday.

Geiger, now 23, pleaded guilty to second-degree involuntary manslaughter and other crimes in March and was sentenced to two years in prison as part of a plea deal with St. Louis County prosecutors.

Thomas Magee, an attorney for Geiger, said Sunday that his client has “always taken responsibility for his actions”

“We took responsibility for what he did in the trial, but we pointed out to the jury that there’s more to the story than Trent,” Magee said. “He fell into a trap of thinking what he was using was harmless. There’s a bigger picture of these companies behind it.”,under%20the%20name%20Whip%2DIt!

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