Your first priority after a severe burn injury is seeking medical treatment. But if it’s the result of someone’s negligence, you might want to explore a legal claim, too.
Everyone suffers a burn eventually. Whether it’s a minor burn from cooking in your kitchen or a serious injury that’s the result of an explosive car accident or something that happened in your workplace, they’re painful and the healing process can be lengthy.
Nearly half a million people per year on average are treated in U.S. hospitals for burn injuries, according to the American Burn Association, and up to 10,000 people in this country die of burn-related infections each year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most people treated for burns suffer thermal burns caused by contact with flames, hot liquids, hot surfaces, chemical burns, or electrical burns — not from building fires. If someone dies or is injured as a result of a fire in a home or other building, it’s more likely because of being overcome by smoke or toxic gases than from flames.
Types of burn injuries
Burns are classified based on their severity:
First-degree burns: top layer of skin
- Red, painful to touch, mild swelling
- Usually, these can be treated at home with cool water, bandages, and over-the-counter pain medication.
Second-degree burns: first 2 layers of skin
- Deep redness
- Pain and blistering
- Glossy appearance with fluid leakage
- Possible skin loss
- Should be treated by a health professional
Third-degree burns: penetrates the skin and destroys tissue
- Loss of skin layers
- Skin becomes dry and leathery, or could appear white, brown, or black
- Requires immediate medical attention
Burn injuries come in many different shapes and sizes. Different types of burns include:
- Scalding, caused when hot liquids come into contact with the skin.
- Electrical burns, which is when the skin is burned by electrical voltage that can also cause internal damage.
- Chemical burns, when a strong acid or base is in contact with the skin.
- Thermal burns, which are exposure to fire, such as in a car accident, or flammable liquid exposure.
- Gas explosions, caused by a gas leak that catches fire.
- Radiation burns, caused by X-rays, radiation from medical treatment, or tanning beds.
- Inhalation burns from inhaling smoke, steam, or toxic fumes.
How do burn injuries happen?
Some of the most common causes of burn injuries include:
- Truck or car accidents
- Workplace injuries
- Defective products
- Electrical accidents
- Scalding water or pipes
- Fires in public places (like restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, etc.)
- Apartment building fires
An “e-cigarette” (also known as a “vape”) is a device powered electronically to vaporize a liquid that’s inhaled and exhaled in a manner similar to smoking a traditional cigarette. Often, vapes contain a portable, rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The user presses a button that activates the heating component (for some, the heating device is activated when the user initiates an inhalation).
We use items every day that contain lithium-ion batteries — they’re in mobile phones, laptop computers, tablets, and hundreds of other electronic devices. However, lithium-ion batteries in vapes aren’t regulated as strictly as those in other devices. These batteries could overheat or catch fire from a brief exposure to another metal. That means carrying your vape in your pocket or handbag where it might touch (or come close to) your keys, loose coins, your phone, or other metals, could actually cause it to catch on fire. There’s also a risk of fire while charging. If your vape catches fire while charging in your home or car, those flames can spread fast.
Severity of burn injuries
What affects how severe a burn will be?
Sometimes it depends on the source of the burn. For example, a chemical burn might be more serious than a thermal burn if the chemicals were on the person’s skin for a long time.
Along those same lines, where the burn affects the body matters, too. For example, a burn on the face could be very serious because it might affect breathing or eyesight, where the same level of burn elsewhere might have lesser effects.
There are also some categories of people who are at greater risk because they don’t heal as well. Children and the elderly are at higher risk than other adults. People who have respiratory illnesses, heart conditions, kidney disease, and diabetes also might experience additional complications from a serious burn injury.
Burn injuries and personal injury lawsuits in California
There are 3 kinds of burn injuries that are most likely to lead to a personal injury claim:
- Product defect
- Premises liability
Burn injuries caused by negligence
Negligence is when a person or entity (like a company or government agency) commits a wrongful act that harms someone. It can also be a failure to act if an injury was caused by something that should’ve happened but didn’t.
As in any negligence action, there are 3 elements that must be present:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.
- The defendant breached the duty by their act or failure to act.
- The breach was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
Read more about California negligence, fault and liability law.
The plaintiff offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income, but McDonald’s wouldn’t agree to that amount. The parties ultimately reached a confidential settlement. The plaintiff was initially awarded $3 million in punitive damages against McDonalds, but that amount was later reduced to less than $600,000.
One reason this case received so much media attention is because the public was divided on whether the burn was McDonald’s fault or the plaintiff’s. The outcome was that McDonald’s admitted that it knew about the risk of burn injuries from hot coffee, and that even if the plaintiff hadn’t spilled it, the temperature of the coffee would burn someone’s mouth and throat when they tried to drink it. McDonald’s also admitted that it did not properly warn customers about the risk of a burn injury from the coffee.
Burn injuries caused by a defective product
California law says that strict liability applies when someone designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product even if there was no negligence.
There are 3 types of defects that can lead to a product liability claim:
- Design defect. This happens if a product is inherently dangerous because the design wasn’t safe. Even if it’s manufactured exactly according to the design specifications, it remains a dangerous product when used correctly. The only way to correct the defect is to change the design and create the product differently.
- Manufacturing defect. If a product is damaged, not assembled properly, or otherwise comes through the manufacturing process incorrectly, it could result in a manufacturing defect.
- Inadequate warnings. Even if the product is designed and manufactured exactly as expected, sometimes injuries happen because the labels or packaging didn’t provide sufficient warning to the consumer about possible dangers or incorrect use.
A defective product could cause a burn injury in a variety of ways. What if a smoke alarm malfunctions and you’re not alerted to a fire in your home? And, why did that fire start in the first place — faulty wiring, or a defective heating unit? What about space heaters?
Any appliance, large or small, could cause a burn if it has an electrical short or other problems.
The phone’s manufacturer, Apple Inc., told Kayla’s mom that devices sometimes malfunction when paired with unauthorized third-party cables, unauthorized (i.e. non-Apple) repairs are made, or external damage has affected the battery.
Thankfully, Kayla wasn’t injured. But in a case like this, who’s liable? If this had involved a burn injury that became a legal claim, it could’ve involved both Apple and manufacturers of a charging cable or any other external technology that had been used with the phone.
Premises liability and burn injuries
Premises liability is negligence that’s the result of poor maintenance or upkeep of property.
There are 3 main elements to a premises liability claim in California:
- Was the accident foreseeable? (In other words, could the property owner or manager have reasonably anticipated that the accident could happen?)
- Did the owner make a reasonable effort to warn visitors of a dangerous condition?
- Why was the person on the property, and how were they using it?
The little boy suffered second- and third-degree burns, and was left with one hand permanently disfigured. His treatment included skin grafting and multiple surgeries.
Although park officials had inspected the campsite prior to the accident, there were charcoal embers burning under a layer of ash that was still 1,000 degrees even after a fire was extinguished.
The plaintiff’s attorney said, “This was a hidden danger. The main reason for the rangers’ inspection is to ensure any remaining fire is extinguished in order to prevent this exact type of incident from occurring.”
Following a 3-week trial, the jury found that the park was liable for a dangerous condition on the property. The boy’s family was awarded $3 million in damages.
Damages for a California burn injury
“Damages” refers to the money you can recover from a claim after an injury.
Damages are split into 2 categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages repay the injured plaintiff for both economic and non-economic costs associated with the injury. Economic damages are those that are an actual financial cost, including:
- Medical treatment (including surgery, hospital visits, etc.)
- Skin grafting procedures
- Lost wages (past and present)
- Lost earning capacity (future)
- Property damage
- Other costs of care and services necessary to daily life
Non-economic damages are those that don’t have a specific money value, but that are still part of compensating you for your losses. For example:
- Emotional distress
- Disfigurement, scarring, and physical impairment
- Loss of consortium and loss of enjoyment of life activities
- Pain and suffering
Punitive damages are in addition to compensatory damages, so they’re not calculated as part of what the plaintiff is owed for their losses. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for a malicious or intentional wrongful act.
What to do after a California burn injury
Here are some resources available in California if you’ve suffered a burn injury:
- American Burn Association
- The Grossman Burn Center
- UC Davis Health Burn Survivor Support and Aftercare Resources
- UC San Diego Health Support for Burn Patients and Families
- Children’s Burn Foundation
- Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center Living with Burn Injury
- NeedyMeds Diagnosis-based Assistance Programs for Burn Injury
- JAN: Job Accommodation Network
In addition to meeting your physical, medical, and financial needs, you might need an attorney for a legal claim. You can find an attorney by using the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory for a skilled, experienced, compassionate California burn injury lawyer who will help you on your road to recovery.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.