Burn injuries can result from all kinds of underlying negligence, ranging from defective products leaking dangerous chemicals to negligence in handling hot liquids to negligence causing car and motorcycle accidents to electrical shocks and burns. In fact, burn injuries can even occur as a result of the ingestion of and subsequent allergic reaction to certain medications. Attorneys at Easton & Easton, LLP have handled cases involving burn injuries as a result of these different types of negligence.
Burns are typically classified as first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree burns. First-degree burns are usually characterized by reddening of the skin, but with no blistering because the damage is only to the epidermis (superficial layer) of the skin. In second-degree burns, the damage has passed through the epidermis, causing the formation of blisters on the outside of the skin.
In third-degree burns, however, the damage extends past the epidermis and into the dermis (deep layers) of the skin, often burning through subcutaneous fat, muscle, and even bone. Usually, where third-degree burns have occurred, skin grafting will be necessary to repair the damage. These injuries are best treated in Burn Wards of major hospitals where the doctors and nurses have specialized training in dealing with these types of serious injuries.
One of the more well-known third-degree burn cases, which many forget to recognize as a serious burn case, is Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants or the “McDonald’s Coffee Case.” Liebeck is often referenced with infamy as the poster child of frivolous lawsuits and excessive awards. However, upon learning the true facts of the case, most people feel very differently about it.
In that case, Ms. Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, ordered coffee at the McDonald’s drive-thru, then parked and placed the cup between her legs while she attempted to add cream and sugar to it. When she tried to pull the lid off of the cup, the coffee spilled onto her lap, severely burning her thighs, legs, buttocks, and groin. She suffered third-degree burns on 6 percent of her skin, including her genitalia, and underwent significant skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.
During her trial, Ms. Liebeck’s attorneys showed that McDonald’s required its franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 ºF, at which temperature the coffee would cause severe third-degree burns within seconds if it spilled. While McDonald’s served its coffee at this extremely high temperature for its own convenience in keeping the coffee hot for its drive-thru patrons, this high temperature put its customers at undue risk of sustaining a severe burn if the coffee spilled. Other similar establishments (like Burger King, Starbucks, etc) serve coffee at a significantly lower temperature. Ms. Liebeck’s attorneys argued that coffee did not need to be served hotter than 140 ºF. Thus, their claim was that McDonalds created a dangerous product by serving the coffee in flimsy paper cups at unnecessarily extreme temperatures. Obviously the jury agreed with them.
It was because of this proof at trial, specifically that the coffee was so much hotter than it needed to be, and because of Ms. Liebeck’s severe burn injuries that the New Mexico jury awarded her $2.86 million. This serves as a prime example that burn injuries can arise from all types of negligence and that great harm often will result from these types of injuries.