Accidents that cause burns are very common in the United States, leading to thousands of personal injury claims each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that burns and fires are the third leading cause of fatal injuries in the home. In 2011, 2,640 people (not counting firefighters) died in fires and another 13,350 were injured, although more people were injured by smoke and toxic gases in fires than by burns.
The leading cause of fire-related deaths is smoke, while cooking is the most common source of home fires. More home fires occur during the winter, and 37% of home fire injuries occur in residences without smoke alarms. Additionally, fire and burn injuries cost an estimated $7.5 billion each year.
Different Types of Burns
In a personal injury case, burns are classified into four different categories based on their severity:
First degree burns
First degree burns are the least serious, but they can still be very painful. They usually cause swelling and redness and only affect the outer layers of the skin, which is called the epidermis. Most sunburns fall into this category. This type of burn can be considered serious if it occurs in a particularly vulnerable part of the body. If this type of burn warrants a lawsuit, the settlement is likely to be low.
Second degree burns
Second degree burns go beyond the top layer of the 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 usually heal on their own. Deep second degree burns are usually white and dry and can cause scarring.
Third degree burns
Third degree burns are the most serious and can cause death or permanent scarring, disfigurement and disability. These burns are deep enough to damage the muscles and other soft tissues below the dermis layer of the skin. They may appear charred or leathery, and may be black, brown, red, or yellow. Due to the number of nerve endings that are damaged, third-degree burns are sometimes not as immediately painful as more superficial burns.
Fourth Degree Burns
Fourth degree burns are the most life threatening and usually go deep enough to damage bone. In these cases, the skin cannot be recovered and the burned arms or legs are amputated.
Obviously, the higher settlements are for damage incurred from third and fourth degree burns.
In addition to fire, burns can occur as a result of hot liquids or scalds. There was a famous personal injury case involving a woman who was burned by coffee at a McDonald’s restaurant. For this reason, from a legal rather than a medical point of view, burns are also classified by their origin:
Minor burns are the result of some type of light, be it sunlight, a tanning bed, etc.
Chemical burns come from exposure to hazardous substances.
Radiation burns come from exposure to some type of radiation, such as nuclear.
Thermal burns are the most common, as they are caused by flames or excessively hot liquids or steam.
Burn Injury Lawsuits
Determining causation for burn injuries can be difficult, as the causes of burns can be many. Therefore, experts should be called in to investigate the accident site, speak to witnesses and examine any products/machines that may have been involved.
The injured party may be certain that a particular person or organization was at fault for the accident, but there may be a dispute over who should pay the medical bills and damages. These expenses can be exorbitant and may include:
Hospitalization and long-term care
Home nursing care (temporary or permanent)
Lost wages (including possible 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 could go to trial, where a judge or jury will decide 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 alleged to be at fault:
A mother sued the building’s owners when her baby died in a fire. She felt that the building did not provide fire 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 the “wrongful death” of her son.
A hotel customer was burned in the shower because the water system in the building got too hot. The hotel, of course, paid for the client’s injuries.
A student was burned when fraternity members threw a firecracker into her room overnight. The frat house had to pay for his damages.
An inspector tested pipes at a refinery, and was burned by very hot oil when one of the pipes ruptured. While he was wearing protective clothing, his face, hands and feet were exposed and severely burned, requiring many surgeries. Workers’ compensation insurance paid his claim.
An actress suffered third degree burns on her face and body when she performed a stunt where she breathed fire. The film company was responsible for her injuries.
A defective paintball gun exploded in the hands of a child during a paintball game, causing severe burns. The manufacturer of the paintball gun paid a settlement to the boy’s family, as well as what’s called a “structured settlement,” in which the boy receives a certain amount of money on a schedule for the rest of his life.
A bar was keeping an open fire on her patio, and a patron fell into it, suffering burns. The restaurant settled with the client for his injuries and damages.
A worker suffered burns when a faulty machine exploded on the job site. The machine manufacturer was found to be the main culprit, while the employer was also found to be negligent in failing to perform proper maintenance and examinations on the machine in the event of a malfunction.
A woman suffered chemical burns and hair loss during treatment at a salon, and the salon paid for her medical expenses.
Due to the complexity of burn cases, people injured in fire, explosion, or scald incidents are encouraged to retain a law firm experienced in personal injury burn claims.
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