Each year, 1.1 million people in the United States suffer burn injuries that require medical attention. About 45,000 of these injuries are so severe that they require hospitalization. Burn injuries directly cause approximately 4,500 deaths per year, while infections caused by burn injuries kill as many as 10,000 people per year.
Burn injuries damage the skin, which is the largest organ in the human body. The skin serves as a protective barrier against pathogens and helps protect internal organs and tissues from water loss due to evaporation. Skin damaged by a burn injury leaves the body open to short-term complications such as dehydration, infection, hypothermia, and damage to internal organs. Burns can also cause long-term complications including severe physical and emotional scarring.
Burn Injuries Defined
A burn is damage to the skin or other body parts caused by extreme heat, flame, contact with heated objects, chemicals, electricity, sunlight, or radiation. Common causes of burns include hot or boiling water (scalds) and flammable liquids and gases that ignite or explode.
Burn injuries are categorized by “degree” or severity:
- First-degree: damage to only the outer layer (the epidermis) of the skin. An example would be a minor sunburn.
- Second-degree: damage to the epidermis and the layer of skin beneath it (the dermis). Scalding commonly results in second-degree burns.
- Third-degree: damage or complete destruction of the skin to its full depth and damage to underlying tissues. People who experience such burns often require skin grafting. This type of burn frequently results from flame or contact injuries.
- Fourth-degree: destruction of both the epidermis and dermis and damage to the underlying tendons, bone, fat tissue and muscle. High-voltage electrical injuries may result in a fourth-degree burn.
Fire and Inhalation Injuries
Burn victims who also suffer from smoke inhalation have a higher rate of death than those who were merely burned. According to the United States Fire Association, seventy-five percent of all fire-related deaths are attributable to inhalation of smoke and toxic gases produced by a fire. Burns caused by the flames accounted for only one-fourth of all such deaths.
Smoke inhalation injures a person in the following three ways:
- Pulmonary Irritation: Over one hundred known toxic substances are present in burn smoke. These toxins can cause direct tissue injury, inflammation, and abnormal contraction of the smooth muscle of the bronchi which constricts and obstructs the respiratory airway (bronchospasm).
- Asphyxiation: Fire in a closed space may significantly decrease the concentration of oxygen that is breathed in, which can lead to a shortage of oxygen in the body (hypoxia).
- Thermal Damage: Heat inhalation occurs when one directly breathes in a heat or flame source.
Burn injuries are often caused by negligence or a defective product.
Negligence is a legal doctrine used to compensate a person for injuries caused by another person’s failure to act with reasonable care. To be found negligent, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached a duty owed to the plaintiff, and that breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In most cases, a person must exercise the same level of care as a reasonable person would exercise under similar circumstances (the reasonable person standard).
Burns can also be caused by defective products. A product may be defectively designed or manufactured in such a way that it is unreasonably dangerous. A manufacturer or vendor may be held liable for damages caused by the defect. A product liability claim may be brought against any member of the distribution chain of a dangerous or defective product, including the designer, manufacturer, supplier of component parts, the wholesaler, and the retail store that sold the product.