There is a tragic and rather bizarre fatality at a large English estate where gardener Nathan Greenaway, 33, died after being rushed to the hospital. The cause appears to be a plant that many may recall from medieval stories — wolfsbane (aka Devil’s helmet, monkshood, leopard’s bane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet or blue rocket). Aconitum is so poisonous that even if brushed against without protection it can cause can vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and, in severe cases, paralysis of the heart and airways. The case would present an interesting tort action in the United States against the retired venture capitalist who owns the $6 million estate. The question is whether Christopher and Kathy Ogilvie Thompson were negligent to have such a lethal plant on the premises if there were no barriers or warnings. The name aconitum comes from the Greek meaning “without struggle”.
A member of the buttercup family of ranunculaceae, Wolfsbane was once used to kill wolves due to this lethality.
Greenaway died of organ failure and his father has been pursuing the theory that it was the plant given the absence of any other explanation. A histopathologist testified at the hearing testified that the flower “more likely than not” caused Greenaway’s death. The owner’s lawyer however expressed skepticism and noted that the blood sample taken when Greenaway was admitted to the hospital has been destroyed. This alone is rather bizarre. Why would a blood sample in a mysterious death be destroyed? The problem is that wolfsbane seems almost designed for murder. It’s toxin is virtually undetectable after a day in the blood.
The knowing inclusion of such a plant in a garden raises some legitimate legal questions as to whether gardeners and other workers were warned of the danger. Clearly the Thomspons have every right to have such plants in their extensive gardens, but the danger is hidden except to those familiar with the plant. Indeed, I cannot imagine having any children or animals on the property with such plants present. It is not clear from the accounts whether in fact Greenaway knew of the plant and was warned. As a gardener, he could be expected to have such knowledge. There is also the question of whether the plant could have grown wild (it reportedly thrives in garden soil and likes the shade), though by the look of this garden it seems a well-tended horticultural space.