Burn injuries can come from many different incidents, such as from an accident at work, a defective product like a hot water heater, a motor vehicle accident, a home fire, or even the intentional act of someone else. Whether the injury was caused by a defective product or by someone else’s negligence, the injured victim will frequently require painful treatment and rehabilitation and, in some cases, a lifetime of medical care.
Burn injury lawsuits hinge on the underlying incident that resulted in the burn. An injured victim’s rights will vary greatly if the accident was the result of another’s negligence, like in a car accident, an intentional act, like arson, a defective product, like a defective home heater, or an accident, like a fire from an unattended stove.
Burn injuries that result from negligence, like in the case of a car accident, are evaluated similar to other personal injury actions. The victim must show that the driver at fault had a duty. In California, all drivers have a duty to drive in a reasonable manner, follow posted road signs, and maintain control of their vehicle, among other, similar duties. Next, the at-fault driver must have violated that duty: for example, by striking the victim’s car while speeding. Third, the burn injuries suffered by the victim must actually have been caused by the accident, and not by some other incident. Finally, the burn injuries must be actual injuries: simply being inconvenienced is insufficient to prove negligence.
Most frequently, burn victims will ultimately deal with an insurance company: either their own, or that of the at-fault driver. Because insurance companies are often well-funded and incentivized to reduce the amount they are required to pay to victims for the accident, it is important to aggressively pursue claims for these types of injuries. Many times, burn injury victims suffer outsized pain and suffering due to the nature of burns, however, victims who have not consulted with an attorney are unaware that they may be able to recover for their pain and suffering from insurance companies, even without litigation.
Burn injuries that result from defective products are evaluated in a similar manner to other product liability cases. Although product liability actions are themselves quite complex, in general, burn victims of defective products in California use a “strict liability” theory of law. Under this theory, a victim can show that the product was either defectively designed, was manufactured incorrectly, or lacked adequate warnings or instructions. For example, if a homeowner suffers burn injuries from a defective hot water heater that exploded unexpectedly, the homeowner could either argue that the hot water heater was defectively designed (such as by calling for materials that could not withstand the heat generated by the heater), that the hot water heater was manufactured incorrectly (such as that the manufacturing company closing a needed valve during production, despite the design indicating that it must always remain open), or that the hot water heater lacked sufficient instructions or warnings (such as lacking instructions and a warning that an important valve must never be shut while the heater is in operation). As with other product liability actions, any entity downstream in the so-called “stream of commerce” is liable for the burn injuries that resulted: so, for example, if the manufacturer made a manufacturing error, the manufacturer, shipper, retailer, and installer of the hot water heater may all be liable for the burn injuries.
Defective products litigation from accidents that lead to burn injuries is a significant area of law. In the late 1990s, a California jury awarded over $4.9 billion (later reduced to $1.2 billion)—among the largest jury verdicts of all-time—to burn victims who were injured while riding in a Chevrolet Malibu. The victims’ car was rear-ended by a drunk driver who was driving at an excessive speed. The car’s fuel tank then ignited, causing serious injuries, including burns, to all of the passengers. The victims sued General Motors, arguing that the fuel tank in their Malibu was defectively designed, and that this defective design led to their burn injuries. The jury awarded the victims $107 million for their pain, suffering, medical bills, and disfigurement caused by the burns, and a further $4.8 billion in punitive damages—essentially damage intended to punish General Motors, as it was shown at trial that General Motors knew of the design defect, but did nothing.
Burns that result from an accident around the home, such as by accidentally leaving a stove unattended, are likely able to obtain recovery from their homeowner’s insurance policy. These victims may also, however, be able to pursue claims under a product liability cause of action: for example, if the stove lacked an automatic safety valve, or burned out a heating element too quickly. Even in the case of “accidents” it is therefore extremely important to obtain the full facts of what may have occurred so as not to foreclose possible legal remedies.
Burn injuries resulting from workplace incidents are usually evaluated under the employer’s worker’s compensation policy. Generally, all employers in California are required to have such a policy. California law mandates that these policies be part of a “no fault” system, which means that, even if the burn injury was the fault of the employee (like by the employee accidentally placing his hand on an extremely hot anvil), the employee can still recover for the entirety of his damages under the insurance policy. This is a dual-edged sword for burn victims because, although worker’s compensation policies provide for medical expenses and a limited amount of lost wages, these policies frequently do not include compensation for pain and suffering—often an extremely important aspect of burn injury recoveries—even if the injury was entirely someone else’s fault. In limited circumstances, however, burn victims may be able to sue for damages beyond the scope of the worker’s compensation policy, such as by suing the owner of a worksite (instead of the employer of the construction company). These circumstances are quite complex, and require the skill of an experienced worker’s compensation attorney.
Finally, burns resulting from intentional acts, like arson, are usually evaluated both criminally and civilly. Regardless, however, of whether an arsonist is convicted of a crime, the burn victim can sue the perpetrator in civil court for her burn injuries. Under this theory, the victim will argue that the perpetrator engaged in an “intentional tort” (such as arson), provided that all elements of the tort are met: in the case of arson, that the perpetrator intentionally set fire to a building, land, or other property, and that the fire actually caused injury. Unfortunately, many perpetrators lack the financial means to cover the damages caused by their acts and burn victims may therefore never be fully financially compensated as a result.
Because of the pain, suffering, and possible lifelong medical issues caused by burns, it is extremely important for burn victims to consult with an experienced attorney to determine the array of options that may be available for compensation.
At the Thompson Law Offices, we understand that your ability to receive the medical care you need, your ability to support your family during your recovery and beyond, and even your peace of mind may depend on receiving the compensation you deserve. Our goal is always to recover the full value of your claim.
If you’re ready to start fighting for your rights, request a free consultation.