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People v. Warner-Lambert Co.

Court of Appeals of New York
51 N.Y.2d 295 (1980)


Facts

Warner-Lambert Co. (defendant) is a manufacturing company that produces chewing gum. The gum is manufactured in a warehouse, with various kinds of machines and chemicals. Magnesium stearate (MS) is a dust-like lubricant that is applied to the gum. The gum then passes through a Uniplast machine and is sprayed with liquid nitrogen. The process disperses MS dust into the air, which can accumulate at the base of the Uniplast machines. MS and liquid nitrogen are considered safe and are often used in the industry; however, if enough MS dust remains in the air, it can pose a significant risk of explosion if ignited. Liquid nitrogen may cause production of liquid oxygen during a process called “liquefaction,” which is also easily ignited. One day, the plant was operating one of the Uniplast machines, and employees were removing settled MS dust. There was a sudden explosion near the operating machine, followed by a second, much larger explosion, accompanied by a fire. Six workers died, and more than 50 were injured. Warner-Lambert Co. and four officials of the corporation, Kraft, O’Mahoney, O’Rourke, and Harris (defendants), were charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Second-degree manslaughter is characterized by an awareness of a risk, and the disregard of that risk, while criminally negligent homicide, is characterized by the failure to perceive a risk. With respect to each crime, the defendant’s culpable conduct must have caused the death of the person. The prosecution offered two theories for the initial cause of the explosions, one attributed to a mechanical spark igniting the Uniplast machine and another hypothesizing that liquid nitrogen dripped onto the settled MS dust, creating liquid oxygen, which ignited. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment. The trial court granted the motion, but the appellate division reversed the order. The defendants appealed.

Rule of Law

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Issue

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Holding and Reasoning (Jones, J.)

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