Accidents that cause burns are all too common in the United States, resulting in thousands of personal injury lawsuits every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that burns and fires are the third leading cause of fatal home injuries. In 2011, 2,640 people (excluding firefighters) were killed in fires and another 13,350 were injured, although more people are injured from smoke and toxic gases in fires than burns.
The number one cause of fire-related deaths is smoking, while cooking is the most common origin of fires in the home. More fires occur in homes during the winter and 37% of injuries in home fires happen in residences that have no smoke alarms. Additionally, fire and burn injuries cost approximately $7.5 billion each year.
Different Types of Burns
In a personal injury case, they are classified in four different categories depending on their severity:
First degree burns are the least severe, but they can still be very painful. They usually result in swelling and redness and only affect the outer layers of skin, which is called the epidermis. Most sunburns fall into this category. This type might be considered serious if they occur on a particularly vulnerable part of the body. If this type of burn merits a lawsuit, the settlement is likely to be low.
Second degree burns go beyond the top layer of skin, damaging the deeper layers, called the dermis. Also, sometimes called partial thickness burns, these are often separated into two categories of superficial or deep, although both types generally heal on their own. Deeper second degree burns are generally white and dry and may result in scars.
Third degree burns are the most severe and can cause death or permanent scars, disfigurements, and disabilities. These go deep enough that they damage the muscles and other soft tissue under the dermis layer of skin. They might look charred or leather-like and can be black, brown, red, or yellow. Because of the number of nerve endings that are damaged, third degree burns are sometimes not as immediately painful as the more superficial burns.
Fourth degree burns are the most life-threatening and usually reach deep enough to injure bone. In these cases, no skin can be recovered and burned arms or legs may be amputated.
Obviously, the highest settlements are for damages incurred from third and fourth degree.
Besides fires, burn injuries can occur as a result of scalding. There was a famous personal injury case of a woman who was burned by coffee at a McDonald’s restaurant. For this reason, from a legal rather than a medical perspective, burns are also classified by their source:
- Light burns are a result of some type of light, whether sunlight, a tanning bed, or bulbs.
- Chemical burns are from exposure to dangerous substances.
- Radiation burns come from exposure to some type of radiation, such as nuclear.
- Thermal burns are the most common, as they occur from flames or excessively hot liquid or steam.
Lawsuits for Burn Injuries
Determining causation for burn injuries can be difficult, as the reasons for the burns can be many. Therefore, experts must be called on to investigate the accident site, talk to witnesses, and examine any products/machines that were involved.
The injured party may feel certain that a particular person or organization was at fault for the accident, but there may be a dispute as to who should have to pay for the medical bills and damages. These expenses can be exorbitant and may include:
- Long-term hospitalization and medical care
- At-home nursing care (temporary or permanent)
- Multiple reconstructive surgeries
- Lost wages (including potential future lost wages) or loss of profession
Both sides will hire experts to conduct investigations and their reports may not agree. When that happens, the case might go to trial where a judge or jury decides who is at fault and how much the injured party (plaintiff) will receive. When fault is not disputed, an out-of-court settlement is often reached. In that situation, the argument is less about who is responsible and more about the amount of money that will be paid to cover the costs of the injuries. Negotiations can take a substantial amount of time to resolve.
Here are some examples of burn personal injury cases and the parties that were alleged to be at fault:
- A mother sued the apartment building owners when her baby died in a fire. She felt that the building did not provide extinguishers as required by regulations and did not provide an adequate way for residents to escape a fire from the upper floors. The owners paid her a settlement for wrongful death of her child.
- A hotel customer was scalded in the shower because the water system in the building was allowed to become too hot. The hotel, of course, paid for the customer’s injuries.
- A student was burned when fraternity members threw a firecracker into his room during the night. The fraternity house had to pay his damages.
- An inspector tested pipes at a refinery and was burned by very hot oil when one of the pipes broke. While he was wearing some protective clothing, his face, hands, and feet were exposed and severely burned, necessitating many surgeries. Workers compensation insurance paid his claim.
- An actress suffered third degree burns to her face and body when a fire-breathing stunt for a film went bad. The film company was held responsible for her injuries.
- A defective paintball gun exploded on a boy during a paintball game, causing him to suffer serious burns. The manufacturer of the paintball gun paid a settlement to the boy’s family, as well as what is called a “structured settlement,” in which the boy receives a certain amount of money on a schedule for the remainder of his life.
- A bar maintained an open fire pit on its patio and a patron fell into it, sustaining burns. The restaurant settled with the customer for his injuries and damages.
- A worker suffered burn injuries when a defective machine in the workplace exploded. The manufacturer of the machine was found to be primarily at fault, while the employer was also found to be negligent in not properly maintaining and examining the machine for malfunctions.
- A woman sustained chemical burns and hair loss to her head during treatment at a hair salon, and the salon paid her medical expenses.
Because of the complexity of burn cases, people who are injured in fires, explosions, or scalding incidents are advised to hire a law firm with experience in personal injury burn claims.
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