See more of the story

A federal jury in Minnesota has found that the maker of a dust remover must pay $7.8 million in connection with a driver inhaling the aerosol to get high and causing a two-vehicle crash in far northern Minnesota that killed another motorist.

The verdict in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on April 26 found CRC Industries liable for the death of 42-year-old Cynthia McDougall in a head-on wreck just outside of her hometown of Baudette in July 2019 with a pickup truck driver who was under the influence of huffing the aerosol.

McDougall's husband, David McDougall, filed a lawsuit in July 2020. Jurors found the company liable on two counts: that the CRC Industries' computer dust remover Duster was "in a defective condition [and] unreasonably dangerous to users of or those exposed to the product," and that the design caused Cynthia McDougall's death.

"To our knowledge," said Phil Sieff, an attorney representing David McDougall, "it's the first verdict [in the United States] against an aerosol dust remover manufacturer for the harms resulting from someone misusing the product."

The suit alleged, among other things, that CRC provided "inadequate warnings to the user of the product about the potential for harm that the user and innocent bystanders may experience as a result of inhaling CRC Duster."

A second phase of the trial addressed whether to require CRC to pay punitive damages on top of the $7.75 million award. Jurors declined to do so, but attached a note to its verdict sheet that read in part:

"We expect CRC to use this as an opportunity to be a leader in their industry and spearhead an effort to address inhalant abuse. ... Testimony and evidence shows that there is much more that could be done to combat the misuse of aerosol products, ESPECIALLY, Duster."

Virginia McCalmont, an attorney for the manufacturer, said Thursday that "CRC does intend to appeal."

Additionally, a company spokesperson said, "We deeply empathize with the pain and loss the McDougall family is experiencing. While we understand their desire for accountability in this tragic situation, we vehemently disagree with the jury's verdict. It is unjust to hold a manufacturer accountable for one individual's deliberate and unlawful misuse of its products when reasonable and responsible precautions have been taken."

The statement from the suburban Pittsburgh-based company added that "we clearly label our products with instructions for safe use and include explicit warnings on the dangers of deliberately inhaling them. We also have taken a proactive role in working with our industry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to address the societal problem of deliberate inhalation of aerosol dusters."

At the scene of the crash, deputies with the Lake of the Woods Sheriff's Office seized an aerosol can of Duster and receipts for multiple cans of the product from the pickup truck of Kyle A. Neumiller when he crossed the center line and hit McDougall's SUV, the charges against him read. Neumiller, of Isle, Minn., 23 at the time of the crash, was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and received a six-year sentence.

David McDougall said Thursday he attended every day of the trial, which started on April 15 in a courtroom about 330 miles from his home. "The verdict gave me a sense of peace I hadn't felt in quite a long time," he said.

David McDougall said he and his son, 15-year-old Jonah, still live in the same home about 10 miles north of Baudette, where Cynthia worked for the Lake of the Woods School District and did hair at a beauty shop on the side.

"I have to drive over the spot it happened, both of us, do every day on the way into town," where David McDougall works as a propane technician and Jonah attends high school.

"It's one of those things, you do it enough, they say time heals all wounds," David McDougall said. "I don't know about that. We're just strong for each other, Jonah and I."

The jury assigned 77.5% of the blame for Cynthia McDougall's death to Neumiller, who was not named as a defendant in the suit, and the balance to CRC. David McDougall sued Neumiller separately in Lake of the Woods County District Court, and they reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum.

"Cynthia McDougall's tragic death would have been avoided altogether," the wrongful death suit read, "if CRC Industries had not defectively designed, defectively manufactured, distributed, and sold CRC Duster, knowing it was reasonably foreseeable that someone would inhale CRC Duster to get high while driving and strike and harm and kill innocent bystanders like Cynthia McDougall."

The chemical in Duster and similar products that produces the addictive high is called DFE. When inhaled, it acts as a depressant, and can cause a host of debilitating symptoms. They include paralysis, loss of consciousness and even death, according to several studies.

Last August, the CPSC called huffing an "unfolding tragedy" and estimated the pursuit of the cheap high from various easily accessible aerosols costs American society more than $1 billion per year.

The agency said that between 2006 and 2022 in the United States, it has been notified of 1,115 deaths and 28,800 emergency room visits involving inhalation of aerosol dusters.