By Judge Brian Addington, Kingsport
It was 1751, and Francis Blandy was suspicious.
As a loving father, Blandy suspected that Captain William Henry Cranstoun, his daughter’s fiance, was already married. When Cranstoun left England to return to Scotland to have his previous marriage annulled, Blandy felt better about the situation. But as the months passed, he realized something wasn’t right and disapproved of the whole idea.
His daughter, Mary Blandy, was in love. She wanted to marry the captain. So some months after the captain left for Scotland, she received a package from him containing a love potion that, if placed in her father’s food, would cause him to approve of their relationship. Mary did so, but instead of changing his mind, Blandy suddenly died–from arsenic poisoning.
The prosecution thought it had a strong case and asked “Dr. Anthony” for his expert opinion. After thorough testing, the good doctor concluded that Mr. Blandy died of arsenic poising. A jury convicted Mary of murder, and she was put to death.
Poisoning is a serious matter, whether intentional or not. One of the greatest tragedies I remember in my teens was the Bhopal disaster in India. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to methyl iscocyanate gas, and although numbers are disputed, many thousands died. It was an unfortunate story of poor maintenance and slow reaction time that led to the disaster.
In Tennessee, employees have been poisoned at work, resulting in reported cases. For example, in Brewer v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, the trial court found the employee, age 66, permanently and totally disabled after inhaling carbon monoxide and noxious fumes from a concrete sealer. Brewer’s independent medical examiner diagnosed her with “dementia, … akin to an Alzheimer type of organic brain damage.” The employer argued this expert, a psychiatrist, wasn’t qualified to give an opinion on “chemically induced dementia.” But the Supreme Court Special Workers’ Compensation Panel disagreed, noting that the expert demonstrated “sufficient knowledge of the effects of chemicals on the nervous system.” But perhaps more importantly, the defense didn’t offer contrary medical proof.
Brewer, a 1999 opinion, offers two lessons. First, medical causation is almost always disputed in these cases. And second, 20 years later, it’s still not probably enough to merely attack the other side’s medical expert. You need your own expert. See Lurz v. International Paper Co.
Brewer involved, in part, carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s easy to understand where an industrial gas like it, both colorless and odorless, could quickly lead to disaster if uncontained. Sometimes gasses can be smelled, and exposure at limited levels is acceptable, but they can be harmful if exposure is increased.
Employers and employees alike need to be aware of the dangers and be prepared. Protective eye wear, clothing, eye-flushing stations, personal wearable alerts, and automatic showers are ways of dealing with exposure, as are systematic blood and urine tests. You can’t be too safe around these substances.
It’s simply not good enough to have suspicions about unsafe gas and fluids. All those involved in the manufacture and use of these substances should plan, plan, plan to avoid harmful exposure and contain any incidents.
I’m sure Mr. Blandy’s suspicions back in the day served him well, but he never saw or tasted the arsenic that killed him. By the way, I have some connection to him, as it was my five-times great-grandfather, Dr. Anthony Addington, who was the prosecution’s expert in Mary Blandy’s trial.