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How to determine liability following an electrical accident
Though it’s not the type of injury that makes national or even local news, each year an estimated 1,000 people die as a result of electrical accidents.
Electrical accidents don’t always end in death. Some electrical injuries, such as a shock from a small appliance, don’t even warrant medical attention.
But if you’ve suffered a serious electrical injury or if a loved one was killed due to an electrical accident, a personal injury lawsuit or workers’ compensation claim might be appropriate.
Electrical injury statistics
On top of the 1,000 people who die as a result of electrical accidents every year, researchers estimate that there are roughly 30,000 non-fatal electric shock incidents.
Here are some other shocking statistics regarding electrical accidents and injuries in the United States:
- Approximately 400 deaths are due to high voltage electrical injuries every year
- Lightning causes 50-300 deaths every year
- Approximately 5% of all burn unit admissions occur as a result of electrical injuries
- Approximately 20% of all electrical injuries occur in children
- Most electrical injuries occur in occupational settings
- Electrical accidents are the 4th leading cause of workplace-related death
Types of electrical injuries
There are 4 main types of electrical injuries:
- Flash injuries are caused by an arc flash (a type of electrical explosion that can occur during a fault or short circuit) and typically result in superficial burns because no electrical current travels past the skin.
- Flame injuries occur when an arc flash ignites an individual’s clothing. In these situations, an electrical current may or may not pass the skin.
- Lightning injuries are caused by extremely short but very high voltage electrical energy and result in an electrical current flowing through an individual’s entire body.
- True electrical injuries involve an individual becoming part of an electrical circuit.
The seriousness of an injury depends on several factors, including the voltage, how the current traveled through the body, the person's overall health, and how quickly the person is treated.
Common injuries include:
- Brain injuries
- Nerve damage
- Organ damage
Particularly when the voltage is high and the electrical field is strong, long term consequences may result, including:
- Neurological damage (neuropathy, seizures, syncope, tinnitus, paresthesias, weakness, loss of balance, or gait ataxia)
- Psychological damage (memory or attention difficulties, irritability, depression or post-traumatic stress)
- Vision damage (cataracts)
- Physical disturbances (pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, pruritus, headaches, fever or night sweats, and reduced range of motion or stiffness in the joints)
Common causes of electrical injury
Electrocution and electrical injuries can occur anytime you come in contact with electricity. The most common causes of injury are:
- Contact with power lines
- Overloading extension cords
- Lighting strike
- Stun guns and tasers
- Faulty appliances
- Damaged or frayed cords or extension leads
- Electrical appliances coming in contact with water
- Incorrect or deteriorated household wiring
How to prevent electrical injury
Each year, thousands of people are injured when they attempt electrical repairs in their homes, despite a lack of electrical experience. The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) strongly recommends hiring a qualified, licensed electrician to perform electrical work in your home.
However, if you decide to do-it-yourself (DIY), ESFI recommends that you:
- Make an effort to learn about your home electrical system before starting
- Never attempt a project that is beyond your skill level
- Always turn off the power to the circuit that you plan to work on by switching off the circuit breaker in the main service panel
- Unplug any lamp or appliance before working on it
- Test wires before you touch them to make sure the power has been turned off
- Never touch plumbing or gas pipes when performing a DIY electrical project
Liability for electrical injuries
Depending on the nature of your electrical injury, you may be able to receive compensation by filing a personal injury lawsuit or a workers’ compensation claim.
If your electrical injury was caused by another person or entity’s carelessness, you can attempt to recover damages by filing a negligence lawsuit.
To recover damages in a negligence lawsuit, you must prove 3 elements:
- The other person or entity owed you a duty of care,
- The other person or entity breached the duty of care (in most cases, this means the person or entity failed to behave as a reasonable person would under the circumstances), and
- You were injured and incurred damages as a result of the other person or entity’s breach.
Shawn Ramanauskas died after being electrocuted while attempting to purchase a snack from an ungrounded electric vending machine. The machine was installed inside a motel by Lance Inc., a vending machine distribution company.
As stated by a contract between Lance Inc. and the motel, Lance Inc. was responsible for installing the vending machine and also charged to “maintain and keep the vending machine in good working order.”
The evidence presented at trial showed that the vending machine had been improperly installed. Not only was the machine not grounded, it was wired with reversed polarity. Further evidence showed that the vending machine distribution company had received several complaints of electric shocks involving the machine, but had done nothing to fix the issue. What’s more, at the time of Shawn’s death, the vending machine was filthy and the grounding prong had been removed from its plug.
Ultimately, the jury found Lance Inc. negligent and awarded Shawn’s family $13 million in damages. A separate settlement agreement was reached with the motel.
If you suffered an electrical injury as a result of a workplace accident, you may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that pays medical expenses and lost wages to employees who are injured while doing their job.
Most injuries are covered so long as the injury occurred during the course of employment. Unlike negligence claims, there’s no need to show that anyone did anything wrong in order to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
Damages in an electrical injury or electrocution lawsuit
In most states, there are 3 basic types of damages available in a personal injury lawsuit:
- Economic damages are intended to compensate you for the monetary losses associated with your injury. These losses might include: medical expenses (past and future), lost wages (past and future), and any other out-of-pocket expenses you incurred due to your injury.
- Non-economic damages are designed to compensate you for the non-monetary consequences of your injury. For example, the subjective pain and suffering that you experience as a result of your accident.
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are generally only available if the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent or intentional.
What to do after an electrical accident
If you or someone near you suffers an electrical injury, keep the following in mind:
- Don't touch the injured person if they are still in contact with the electrical current.
- Call 911 if the source of the burn is a high-voltage wire or lightning. Don't get near high-voltage wires until the power is turned off. Overhead power lines usually aren't insulated. Stay at least 20 feet away, or even farther if the wires are jumping and sparking.
- Don't move a person with an electrical injury unless he or she is in immediate danger.
- Turn off the source of electricity, if possible. If not, move the source away from you and the injured person, using a dry, nonconducting object made of cardboard, plastic or wood.
- Begin CPR if the person shows no signs of circulation, such as breathing, coughing or movement.
- Apply a bandage. Cover any burned areas with a sterile gauze bandage, if available, or a clean cloth. Don't use a blanket or towel, because loose fibers can stick to the burns.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should seek care if you experience:
- Severe burns
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart rhythm problems
- Cardiac arrest
- Muscle pain and contractions
- Loss of consciousness
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