Severe Burn Injuries and Your Legal Options in Tennessee
An overview of what to expect following a burn injury
A serious burn injury can cause both physical and emotional damage. If the injury was the result of someone else’s negligence, you may have grounds to file a personal injury lawsuit. If the injury occurred at work, you may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. Find out how to get started on your road to recovery.
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Burns are injuries caused by excessive heat. The heat can be the result of thermal, electrical, chemical, or electromagnetic energy. Although most burn accidents happen at home, burn accidents can happen anywhere—including at work.
If you suffered a burn injury in Tennessee, you may be able to recover damages to help you on your road to recovery.
Types of burns
There are 5 general “types” of burns based on the source that causes the burn:
- Thermal burns are skin injuries caused by excessive heat, typically from coming into contact with a hot surface, hot liquid, steam, or flames. Thermal burns are the most common type of burn, accounting for roughly 86% of all burn injuries.
- Radiation burns are skin injuries caused by radiation. The most common type of radiation burn is caused by prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Less common radiation burns result from therapeutic cancer treatments and nuclear power plant leaks.
- Chemical burns are injuries to the skin caused by acids, alkalis, detergents, or solvents.
- Electrical burns are injuries to the skin caused by alternating electrical currents (AC) or direct electrical currents (DC).
- Friction burns are injuries to the skin caused by heat generated by friction, such as a rope sliding quickly through your hands or getting road rash in a motorcycle accident.
How severe is my burn injury?
Burns are classified according to how deeply and severely they penetrate the surface of the skin:
- First-degree burns affect only the outer layer of skin (the epidermis). The burn site is red, painful, and dry, but has no blisters. Long-term tissue damage is rare and often consists of an increase or decrease in skin color.
- Second-degree burns impact the epidermis and part of the lower layer of skin (the dermis). The burn site looks red, blistered, and may be swollen and painful.
- Third-degree burns destroy the epidermis and dermis. They may go into the innermost layer of skin (the subcutaneous tissue). The burn site may look white or blackened and charred.
- Fourth-degree burns go through both layers of the skin and underlying tissue as well as deeper tissue, possibly involving muscle and bone. There is no feeling in the area since the nerve endings are destroyed.
Your doctor may use the “rule of nines” to estimate the percentage of total body surface area (TBSA) that has been burned. The rule of nines divides the body into sections of 9% or 18% as follows:
- Head and neck equal 9% of TBSA
- Each arm equals 9% of TBSA
- Each leg equals 18% of TBSA
- Anterior trunk (front of the body) equals 18% of TBSA
- Posterior trunk (back of the body) equals 18% TBSA
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
, roughly 1.1 million people in the United States suffer burn injuries that require medical attention every year. Roughly 50,000 of these people require hospitalization, 20,000 have major burns involving at least 25% of their TBSA, and 4,500 of these people die.
Common causes of burn injuries
A burn injury can result from just about any situation. Some of the most common situations that lead to burn injuries include:
There are a number of factors that increase your chances of suffering a burn injury. These factors, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), include:
- Occupations that increase exposure to fire
- Overcrowding and lack of proper safety measures
- Placement of young children in household roles such as cooking and care of small children
- Underlying medical conditions, including epilepsy, peripheral neuropathy, and physical and cognitive disabilities
- Alcohol abuse and smoking
- Use of kerosene as a fuel source for non-electric domestic appliances
- Inadequate safety measures for liquified petroleum gas and electricity
Real Life Example: A young woman in Huntsville, Tennessee, suffered severe burns to her head, hands, and body when a firework ricocheted into her house and struck her. According to the victim’s mother, the young woman was burned so badly that her clothes stuck to her skin.
Legal options after suffering a burn injury in Tennessee
If you were severely burned, you may be able to recover damages depending on the circumstances surrounding your injury.
Let’s take a look at the 3 most common legal options.
1. Personal injury lawsuit
The vast majority of personal injury lawsuits for burn injuries are based on negligence. Negligence occurs when a person or entity is careless and that carelessness causes an injury.
To recover damages in a negligence lawsuit, you need to prove the following 3 elements:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care. A duty of care arises when the law recognizes a relationship between you and the defendant requiring the defendant to exercise a certain standard of care so as to avoid harming you. In most cases, the applicable standard of care is the degree of care that a “reasonable person” would exercise under the circumstances.
- The defendant breached the applicable duty of care. In other words, you must prove that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would under the circumstances.
- Your injury was caused by the defendant’s breach. You must prove that but for the defendant’s action or inaction, you wouldn’t have been injured.
Real Life Example: The Tennessee Gas Company incorrectly installed a gas heater in the plaintiff’s store in Knoxville, Tennessee. The plaintiff notified the gas company of the error, but the company failed to return to the store and fix the problem. As a result, gas escaped into the store and caused an explosion that resulted in a fire, destroying the store building and contents.
The plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit against the Tennessee Gas Company and the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
2. Wrongful death claim
If a loved one dies from a burn injury, certain family members of the deceased may be able to file a wrongful death claim. A wrongful death claim is just like a negligence claim in that the family members asserting the claim must prove that the defendant was negligent in order to recover damages.
The damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- Damages the deceased could have recovered if they had survived, and
- Damages associated with the loss of the family member.
Real Life Example:
The home of Steve and Sue Krzeski exploded after the Knoxville Utilities Board installed a natural gas utility line. The explosion killed their teenage son, Nick, and caused severe burn injuries to Steve and Sue.
Steve and Sue filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the Knox County Circuit Court alleging that the public utility company’s negligence caused the death of their son. Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the utility company failed to properly install and inspect the device connecting the gas line to the home. The lawsuit seeks damages for medical expenses, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.
3. Workers’ compensation claim
If a burn injury occurs at work, you may be able to receive workers’ compensation.
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that pays medical expenses and lost wages to employees who are injured while performing their job duties. The majority of Tennessee employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance.
Workers’ compensation is no-fault insurance, which means you don’t need to establish that your employer or colleague was negligent in order to receive workers’ compensation benefits. However, there are certain steps you must take to prevent your claim from being denied.
Possible compensation for a Tennessee burn injury
A severe burn can cause both physical and emotional injuries. While the immediate medical expenses associated with emergency care are the most obvious cost of a burn injury, rehabilitation may include:
- Pain management
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Cosmetic reconstruction
- Skin grafting
- Psychological counseling
- Patient and family education counseling
- Nutritional counseling
Fortunately, Tennessee allows plaintiffs to recover 2 types of damages:
- Economic damages represent the momentary losses caused by your burn injury, including medical expenses, lost wages, and property damage.
In rare cases, when the defendant acted maliciously, fraudulently, or recklessly, plaintiffs may be able to recover punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish defendants and deter similar actions in the future.
In most cases, Tennessee law caps the amount of non-economic damages you can receive at $750,000 and the amount of punitive damages you can receive at $500,000. However, if you suffer third-degree burns over 40% or more of your body, the non-economic damage cap is increased to $1 million.
How to prevent burn injuries
Though there are several ways to recover damages after a burn injury, most people would prefer to avoid a burn injury in the first place. Here are some tips for avoiding burn injuries from the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford:
Tips for avoiding burn injuries
- Periodically check electrical plugs and cords for dirt or fraying.
- Keep appliances unplugged when not in use.
- When working with a hot liquid, keep your child safely away from the source.
- If you have a toddler or a small child at home, don't use a tablecloth. The child may pull on the corner of the tablecloth, causing potentially hot objects to fall on them.
- Teach your child what to do in case of a house fire. Practice your exit strategy and teach them to stay out of the house once they exit.
- Teach your children how to put out a fire.
- When cooking with hot oil or a deep fryer, keep your child a safe distance from the source.
- When cooking, keep pot handles turned inward on the stovetop and away from the edge of the stove.
- If you use a microwave to heat your child's food, test the temperature before giving it to your child.
- Heating formula or milk in a microwave can be dangerous, as the liquid does not heat uniformly. Some portions may be hotter than others. Use a bottle warmer as a safer means to warm infant formula and milk.
- If you are cooking on the stove or in the microwave, don't hold your child as you remove items from these appliances.
- Teach your child to stay away from lighters and matches. Keep these items out of a child's reach.
- Before placing a child or infant in a bathtub, check the water temperature with your hand.
- Train your children to identify exits in public places, theaters, concert halls, and hotels as soon as they enter the buildings.
- Turn down your water heater to 120°F or lower.
- Check alternative heating devices for safe operation (electric space heaters or kerosene heaters).
- Check smoke detector batteries and clean and test your smoke detectors often.
- Change smoke detector batteries twice a year. Choose two dates that are easy to remember such as when you change your clocks, or on a summer or winter holiday.
- Before using barbecues or grills, clean them of grease buildup and use lighter fluid sparingly.
- Use sunblock whenever you’re in the sun. Use sunblock even on cloudy days.
- Don't play with fireworks.
- Encourage children to wear shoes in the summer and avoid walking on hot asphalt or hot sand.
- When traveling, choose hotels or motels that are protected by both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system. Know where hotel and motel exits are in case of a fire.
- Store harmful chemicals and cleaners in an area where children will not be able to access them.
- Before using a chimney or fireplace during the winter months, have them cleaned.
- Always discard smoking materials in a deep or wet receptacle.
- Don't overload electrical outlets.
- During a power outage, use flashlights instead of candles.
- During Halloween, assure that your child is wearing a flame-retardant costume.
- Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and garage. Make sure family members know its location. Check it periodically to make sure it stays in good working order. Replace it if necessary.
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