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McLaughlin v. Mine Safety Appliances Co. - 11 N.Y.2d 62, 226 N.Y.S.2d 407, 181 N.E.2d 430 (1962)

Rule:

The duty to warn of latent dangers extends to the original or ultimate purchasers of the product to employees of those purchasers and to third persons exposed to a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm by the failure to warn.

Facts:

Frances Ann McLaughlin, an infant six years of age, was visiting her uncle and aunt in West Deering, New Hampshire, during the Summer of 1952. While bathing in Whittemore Lake, she almost drowned and was carried from the lake in an unconscious condition. The local lifeguard administered first aid, and the Bennington Volunteer Fire Department was summoned. A fire department truck arrived shortly thereafter, and two men removed a resuscitator and some blankets from the truck. The resuscitator was placed over the infant's mouth, and she was wrapped in blankets by a woman who identified herself as a nurse. More warm insulation was needed to revive the child, so the firefighters returned to the truck and obtained some boxes containing "heat blocks," which were placed on the child's bare chest. The child survived from the incident, but the use of heat blocks resulted in blisters and third degree burns requiring extensive treatment. Plaintiffs father and child filed suit for loss of services against the defendant, the exclusive distributor of the heat blocks, upon the theory that it had failed adequately to warn the public of the danger involved in the use of the blocks and to properly "instruct" ultimate users as to the "proper application of the said blocks". The court indeed held that the defendant failed adequately to warn of the danger from using blocks without protecting skin. On appeal, defendant contended that plaintiff failed to prove actionable negligence, and that trial court committed reversible error in its charge that defendant could still be liable, even though the firefighters had knowledge of the need for further insulation, if it was reasonably foreseeable that the blocks would get from the firefighters to unwarned third persons. 

Issue:

In plaintiff's negligence and failure to warn action for injuries suffered as a result of use by a third party of defendant's heat block, did the trial court err in charging the jury that defendant distributor would be liable despite the jury's finding of unforeseeable negligence by third party firefighters and nurse at the scene?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York held it was unforeseeable that firefighters would disregard the proper use of blocks and deprive the nurse of her opportunity to read the instructions prior to applying the blocks making the defendant's warning irrelevant. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment against defendant and granted a new trial because the trial court erred in charging jury that defendant would be liable despite the jury's finding of unforeseeable negligence by third party. The Court explained that the true problem presented in this case was one of proximate causation, and not one concerning the general duty to warn or negligence of the defendant distributor.

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