A tragic and bizarre accident occurred last Saturday at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Ireland Lane, 11, ran from her room in flames and investigators believe that static electricity may have ignited flammable hand sanitizer on the cancer survivor.
Ireland will now need skin grafts — a truly horrific burden for a child who has already faced so much in her short life.
Her father Stephen Lane, 34, was sleeping in her room overnight when he was awakened by her screaming. She suffered third-degree burns from just above her belly button to her chin as well as parts of her arms and the bottom of her earlobes. Her hair also caught on fire. The last thing that she recalled was using sanitizer to clean the table that rolled over her bed, where she had painted a wooden box as a gift for her nurses. She had also been playing with the static electricity on the sheets of her bed. There have been a number of cases involving fires with hand sanitizer in hospitals.
Doernbecher uses the sanitizer Avagard D, produced by 3M that is 61 percent ethyl alcohol and warns of a fire danger. Notably, 3M spokesperson Donna Fleming Runyon insisted that “When used as directed, it is entirely safe.”
However, that does not answer the tort question. First, even if directed to be used in specific conditions, 3M would be liable for “foreseeable misuse.” A manufacturer is liable for the foreseeable use of their product and use around static electricity on beds would clearly fall within that definition. Second, there is the question of a design defect in the high use of alcohol and whether there is an alternative chemical composition. Third, there is the question of a warning defect if static electricity — a ubiquitous factor in homes and hospitals — is a danger.
There is also a question of liability for the hospital in the use of alcohol-based sanitizer as well as sheets with a high static electricity characteristic. This would be a case that both parties should want to settle quickly and quietly. I fail to see any plaintiffs’ conduct issues since a little girl playing with sheets is hardly an act of negligence or assumption.