Anyone who has ever suffered even a minor burn injury knows the incredible pain burns can cause. Serious burns caused by accidents are physically excruciating and emotionally devastating. Burns can destroy skin and lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Sometimes burns result from our own carelessness. But burns caused by the negligence of another person, business, or corporation, are also frequent.
According to the American Burn Association, burn injuries are one of the leading causes of unintentional death and injury in the United States. Between 2011 and 2015 there were approximately 486,000 emergency room visits due to fire or burn injuries. In 2016 alone, U.S. fire departments reported 1,342,000 fires resulting in an estimated 3,390 civilian deaths and 14,660 civilian fire injuries. Even more tragic, almost one-quarter of all burn injuries occur in children under the age of 15. Unintentional fire or burn injuries were the 5th leading cause of injury deaths in the United States in 2015 for children age 1-4, and the 3rd for those age 5-9.
Types of Burn Injuries
Electrical burns and electrocution
There are four basic types of electrical injuries: flash burns, flame injuries, lightning injuries, and true electrocution. Flash burns are caused by an arc flash which is the intense heat and light produced by certain types of electrical explosions or discharges. The electricity in a flash burn typically only burns the skin surface and does not penetrate further. It may also cause eye damage. Flame injuries occur when an arc flash ignites a person's clothing – the electrical current may or may not pass the skin in these cases. A lightning injury, as the name implies, occurs when a person is struck by lightning sending enormously high electrical voltage through the individual's entire body. A true electrical injury occurs when a person actually becomes part of an electrical circuit, sometimes causing an entry and exit wound.
Serious electrical injuries can cause severe burns requiring skin grafts.. They can also cause severe eye damage or blindness. They can also damage nerves, muscles, and organs, and require surgery or amputation. Too high of a voltage may cause the heart to stop beating (cardiac arrest) and result in death.
In the United States, electrical injuries cause approximately 1000 deaths and 30,000 non-fatal injuries each year. Approximately 5% of all burn unit admissions in the United States occur as a result of electrical injuries. Tragically, the incidence of electrical injuries is highest in toddlers and adolescents – approximately 20% of all electrical injuries occur in children, most occurring at home. In contrast, most adult electrical injuries occur at a workplace where electricity is used.
Many electrical injuries are preventable, and in some cases, are the result of the negligent acts of others. For example, electrical accidents in the workplace may be the result of inadequate safety measures or procedures, or due poorly maintained or faulty equipment. Electrical injuries at home may be the result of unsafe electrical appliances or unsafe electrical outlets. In such instances, businesses or manufacturers may be held liable for such injuries. Even lightning injuries may be the fault of a business, or other responsible entity, that fails to cancel a public or sporting event during a thunderstorm.
Automobile fires and burn injury
According to the U.S. National Fire Data Center, each year, from 2014 to 2016, an estimated 171,500 highway vehicle fires occurred in the United States, resulting in an annual average of 345 deaths, 1,300 injuries; and $1.1 billion in property loss. These figures include fires involving passenger road vehicles (car, motorcycles, ATVs, etc.) as well as freight, transportation, construction, and agricultural vehicles – the vast majority (83%) of vehicle fires involved passenger vehicles. Careless behavior or accidental actions accounted for 38% of highway vehicle fires, and 60% of vehicle fire-related deaths were due to collisions. Careless or negligent drivers who cause an accident may be held legally liable for the injuries they cause.
An additional 21% of highway vehicle fires were due to equipment failure, usually the result of mechanical problems or faulty vehicle design or an improperly installed device. Vehicle-related defects that can result in vehicle fires include: weak, unprotected, or poorly designed gas tanks; electrical problems; overheating engines or catalytic converters; fuel system leaks; and overheating or exploding batteries. The most notorious case involving vehicle fires due to a defective design is the Ford Pinto (1970-1976) which resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 27 to 180 deaths. Unfortunately, in recent years nearly every major vehicle manufacturer has issued recalls related to fire risk, including: GM, Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Audi, Kia, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda, and Mercedes. Manufacturers may be held liable for injuries caused by their faulty or defectively designed vehicles.
Structure fires burn injury
Houses, offices, and other buildings can catch fire from a wide range of causes, including, but not limited to:
- Environmental fires
- Electrical Sparks
- Gas leaks
- Electric or gas kitchen appliances
Residential fires are the leading cause of fire-related deaths. In 2016 there were 2,735 home fire deaths accounting for 80.7 percent of all civilian fire deaths. Although many of these fires are unavoidable, if a structural fire is due to arson or negligence, the responsible party could be responsible for any injuries, death, or property damages.
Businesses may also be held responsible for fire-related deaths if it is determined they violated fire codes or failed to maintain proper fire safety equipment. Examples of fire code violations that could result in deadly fires are:
- overcrowding a business such as a club or restaurant
- zoning violations (e.g. using an industrial zoned structure as a residential property)
- blocked passageways, doors, and exit stairs preventing people from evacuating
- excessive debris, clutter or piling of materials
- inadequately illuminated exit or safety signs
- non-existent or non-functioning fire extinguishers
- building code violations (e.g. bad electrical wiring, inadequate fire insulation, inadequate clearances, etc.)
- equipment violations (e.g. illegal or inadequately maintained appliance or equipment such boilers, heating systems, cooking equipment, etc.)
- improper or inadequate fire suppression systems (sprinkler systems, etc.)
- inadequate or non-functioning fire alarms
- blocked fire department connections and valves
- inadequate fire safety/evacuation plan or employee training (e.g. drills)
- keeping fire doors open (which should be closed)
- open or exposed electrical outlets
- improper use of extension cables
- insufficient clearance/spacing between electrical control boxes and surrounding furniture or equipment.
One recent notorious example of a deadly structure fire was the “Ghost ship fire” in Oakland, CA which occurred in December 2016. The structure was a warehouse that had been unlawfully converted into an artist's collective and living space. A fire broke out during a concert being held there and resulted in the death of 36 people, making it one of the deadliest building fires in recent history. Investigators found numerous code violations, including: illegal occupancy use; hazardous garbage and debris around and throughout the building; a lack of fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs; illegal construction; illegal electrical wiring (use of extension cords and overloading of circuits); and inadequate exit routes. In addition to criminal charges and prosecution, numerous lawsuits have been filed against the owner and operators of the building.
California, especially because of its dry climate, is susceptible to wild and structural fires. Furthermore, strong and extremely dry winds in Southern California, known as Santa Ana winds, create the perfect conditions for intense and rapidly spreading fires.
Over the past two decades California has endured some of the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history, including: the Cedar fire (San Diego, 2003), Station fire (Los Angeles, 2009); Thomas fire (Santa Barbara/Ventura, 2017), Mendocino/Ranch fire (Mendocino, 2018), Carr fire (Shasta, 2018), and the Campfire (Butte, 2018). The most destructive and deadly fire in California history was the Camp fire in Butte County which in November 2018 burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and killed 86 people. The cost of the fire is estimated to be over $30 billion. In May 2019 California investigators determined that utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was responsible for the fire for failing to properly maintain its infrastructure and equipment. Numerous lawsuits related to the fire have been filed.
Flammable clothing, fabrics, and furniture
Most clothing can be highly flammable. If ignited, clothing can facilitate the spread of a fire, which may lead to severe burns if the fire is not extinguished fast enough. By law, clothing, mattresses, and various other fabric products sold in the U.S. must comply with the Flammable Fabrics Act. However, there have been many cases where products have been recalled after they were distributed due to many reported burn incidents. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website lists numerous mattresses, clothing items, and other materials that have been recalled in recent years due to failure to meet federal flammability standards. Manufacturers and sellers may be legally liable for injuries caused by their unsafe products or their failure to promptly and adequately warn consumers of the dangers.
Thermal burn injury
Thermal burn injuries occur when there is exposure to steam, flames, flash, hot surfaces, or hot liquids with a temperature of 115 degrees or more. A thermal burn injury may be job related, such as when a cook at a restaurant works with a hot stove. If this type of injury is due to an employer or coworker's negligence, they could be held financially liable.
Chemical burn injury
Chemical burn injuries are caused by contact with acids or strong bases. Most chemical burns happen in laboratories, where very strong chemicals dissolve skin at contact.
Flammable Liquids and Gases
Flammable liquids are a major contributor to burn injuries within households. According to the National Fire Protection Association, flammable gas fires cause an estimated 168 civilian deaths, 1,029 civilian injuries, and $644 million in direct property damage per year. Furthermore, flammable or combustible liquid fires cause an estimated 454 civilian deaths, 3,910 civilian injuries, and $1.5 billion in direct property damage per year.
Commonly used highly flammable liquids and gases include:
- Propane (commonly used for gas grills)
- Methane (natural gas) – used for cooking and heating in most homes in California
- Lighter fluid
- Household cleaners
- Paint thinner
- Floor coating products
Although some of these liquids by themselves do not burn, their emitted vapors, if ignited after mixing with air, are highly flammable. These vapors are especially dangerous because they are often undetectable; since the vapors are heavier than air, they tend to hover near the floor and often go unnoticed. If any of these products do not adequately warn consumers of its flammability on the label, then the company that produced the product could be financially responsible for any resulting fires, injuries, and/or deaths.
E-cigarette (Vaporizer/Vape-pen) Accidents
Electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes , vape pens or vaporizers) are handheld battery-powered devices that vaporize various liquid substances (usually including nicotine) which people inhale in a manner similar to traditional tobacco cigarette use. Their popularity has grown tremendously in recent years. They are especially becoming popular among younger people, including minors, as they offer a more diverse smoking experience due to an enormous variety of attractive flavors and formulations. In some cases, they are also more affordable than traditional tobacco cigarettes. Furthermore, their popularity has increased due to dubious and unsubstantiated claims that they are much safer or less addictive than traditional tobacco cigarettes. According to recent figures, nearly 11 million adults in the U.S. (1 in 20) are currently using e-cigarettes. More shocking, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, e-cigarettes use has been increasing among adolescents – the use of e-cigarettes was 9.5 percent among 8th graders, 14.0 percent among 10th graders, and 16.2 percent among 12 graders.
In addition to problems concerning addiction and chronic health issues, e-cigarettes also carry the risk of traumatic injury from explosion and/or fire. There have been numerous instances of e-cigarettes exploding in users' mouth or hands causing severe, disfiguring injuries including third-degree burns, loss of teeth, loss of fingers, damage to the eyes, and loss of parts of the face or roof of the mouth. In some cases the e-cigarette may overheat and cause a house fire. According to a 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) there were 2,035 visits to U.S. emergency rooms from 2015 to 2017 for e-cigarette burns and explosion-related injuries.
Many explosion and burn accidents are due to the inherent design of e-cigarettes which carry small, but powerful batteries near a heating element which allows liquids to be vaporized. A July 2017 report by the U.S. Fire Administration concerning e-cigarette-related fires and explosions found that “the combination of an electronic cigarette and a lithium-ion battery is a new and unique hazard… since the current generation of lithium-ion batteries is the root cause of these incidents, it is clear that these batteries are not a safe source of energy for these devices… the shape and construction of electronic cigarettes can make them (more likely than other products with lithium-ion batteries) behave like ‘flaming rockets' when a battery fails.” The report also noted that “it is likely that the number of incidents and injuries will continue to increase.”
What are common causes of burns?
Burn injuries often result from:
- on-the-job incidents
- fires in structures
- automobile accidents
- thermal burns
- chemical burns
- accidents in the kitchen
- children playing with matches or fire
- scalds from hot liquid
- falling sleep while smoking
- electrocution or electrical burns
Burn Severity Classifications:
The skin is the largest organ in our body. Our skin has billions of neuron receptors that tell our brain if a part of our body is cold or hot or injured. Burns are injuries to the skin caused by heat, electricity, light, radiation, chemicals, or friction, and are categorized by degrees.
- First-Degree Burn: First-degree burns typically take three to six days to heal. Only the first, outer layer of skin (epidermis) is damaged in this type of burn. Examples include: mild sunburns, contact burn injuries, or heat burns.
- Second-Degree Burn: Second-degree burns damage not only the outer layer but also the layer beneath it (dermis). They may take longer than three weeks to heal depending on the severity of the burn and how many nerves were damaged. The deeper or thicker the burned skin, the longer the injury may take to heal. Some second-degree burns lead to superficial blistering, which can scar if not properly treated by a doctor.
- Third-Degree Burn: Third-degree burns damage or completely destroy both layers of skin including hair follicles and sweat glands and damage underlying tissues. It almost always causes scarring. Third-degree burns are severe and may require skin grafts and a recovery period of a month or more. A skin graft is a very thin layer of skin that is cut from an unburned area on the body and put on a badly burned area.
- Fourth-Degree Burn: Fourth-degree burns extend into the fat layer below the skin and require skin grafts.
- Fifth-Degree Burn: Fifth-degree burns extend into the muscle. If arteries or major veins are affected, a fifth-degree burn could be fatal. If muscle is injured too severely, amputation may be necessary.
- Sixth-Degree Burn: This is the most severe type of burn. Sixth-degree burns extend all the way to the bone. Almost all sixth-degree burns are fatal. If someone with a sixth-degree burn does survive, amputation is almost always required.
What are the consequences of serious burns?
- intense pain
- severe scarring and possible disfigurement
- risk of infection
- loss of ability to regrow skin/hair
- loss of elasticity
- loss of sense of touch
- loss of ability to perspire
- need for protection from elements
- emotional devastation
- internal or organ damage
Treatment depends on the degree of the burn, the type of burn, and what percentage of the body was affected. The age and overall health condition of the patient is also taken into account. Usually serious burns require skin grafts and plastic surgery. If you have been seriously burned, you should seek immediate medical care. Depending on the severity of the burn, treatment and rehabilitation could take months or even years of costly medical procedures. Patients may also need occupational therapy and psychological counseling.
If you or a loved one were injured in a fire-related accident, you may be entitled to compensation for resulting medical costs, lost wages, property loss, and pain and suffering. The law limits the time in which you have to file a claim so you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible. We encourage you to contact our Los Angeles based attorneys for a free, confidential, no-obligation review of your potential personal injury claim and see how we can help!