Missouri jury awards $745 million in death of woman struck by driver who used inhalants

Sep 11, 2023, 9:54 AM

Louis Kloeppel, with Interface Construction, demolishes part of a damaged wall so repairs can begin...

Louis Kloeppel, with Interface Construction, demolishes part of a damaged wall so repairs can begin on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, at the Total Access Urgent Care in Chesterfield, Mo. A Missouri jury has awarded $745 million to the parents of a young woman killed on a sidewalk outside an urgent care center by a driver who huffed nitrous oxide canisters right before the accident. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

(Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri jury has awarded $745 million to the parents of a young woman killed on a sidewalk outside an urgent care center by a driver who huffed nitrous oxide canisters right before the accident.

The verdict was reached Friday in the lawsuit brought by the parents of Marissa Politte, 25, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Politte was leaving her workplace at the Ballwin Total Access Urgent Care in St. Louis County on Oct. 18, 2020, when she was struck by an SUV.

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

Police discovered that the 20-year-old driver, Trenton Geiger, had passed out behind the wheel after abusing Whip-It! nitrous oxide. Police found Whip-It! containers they say Geiger threw into the woods. Geiger purchased the canisters at a smoke shop before he struck and killed Politte, according to evidence at the trial.

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

Simon said 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 to smoke shops.

The jury found that United Brands Products Design Development, the company that distributes Whip-It!, was 70% liable, the smoke shop was 20% liable and Geiger was 10% liable.

Politte’s parents, Karen Chaplin and Jason Politte, both testified about the devastating loss of their daughter, who was a radiologic technologist.

A former United Brands warehouse employee estimated during testimony that three quarters of the company’s product went to smoke shops. Evidence included emails between company staff and smoke shop workers, and 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.

Attorneys for United Brands argued that Geiger alone should be responsible for misusing the product and ignoring warning labels advising against inhaling Whip-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.

It wasn’t immediately clear if an appeal was planned. Email messages left Monday with United Brands were not immediately returned.

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

Geiger’s attorney, Thomas Magee, said his client “fell into a trap of thinking what he was using was harmless.”

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Missouri jury awards $745 million in death of woman struck by driver who used inhalants