Over the last six months, my law practice has received a staggering number of calls from clients that have been burned through the negligence of others. I have represented a Decatur, Georgia woman burned at a Stone Mountain spa by hot stone therapy that resulted in second degree burns and permanent scarring; a Gainesville Georgia toddler that received skin grafts after having hot grits spilled on her hands at day care; an Atlanta Georgia woman that was burned when the drive through attendant spilled coffee on her resulting in second degree burns and permanent scarring and just this past week I spoke with a woman whose 22 month old had to receive skin grafts after the gravy at Dairy Queen spilled on them.Put simply, these companies are actively ignoring the acute danger that scalding foods and liquids pose.
Let’s talk about burns for a moment. First, it is important to know that adult skin is more that 4 times as thick as a child’s and therefore, a child will sustain a full thickness burn much more quickly than an adult. According to the National Burn Victim Foundation, it would take a liquid at 140 degrees 5 seconds on adult skin to cause a 3rd degree burn. On a child it would only take 1 second.
A First Degree burn is painful but only involves the out layer of the skin, the epidermis.
A Second Degree burn will show blistering and can get into the reticular layer of the dermis. They can result in scarring and can require grafts when they are partial thickness burns instead of superficial only.
A Third Degree burn will cause loss of the epidermis and damage to the hypodermis. They result in scarring and can require grafts.
Burn cases, especially ones involving children, can be disturbing but that does not mean that there is always liability. Many people remember the Liebeck v. McDonalds case where the 79 year old spilled coffee on her own lap and sustained third degree burns and skin grafts. What bothered people so much about the case was the fact that she spilled it on herself. The jury focused however on McDonald’s lack of concern over the 700 prior burn complaints. Restaurants increased the number and size of the warnings and a great number of cases like this no longer reach the jury.
I focus on food and liquid burn cases in Georgia where there are second acts of negligence. One example is where the store employee is the one that spills the liquid on the customer. In a such a case, the liability is clear. In the example of the day care center, the day care center owes a duty of care to the toddlers not to serve overheated foods and not to spill them on the children. As parents we all know to check the temperatures on foods before we serve them to our children.
Our laws are a fairly good reflection of the values of our society. If you spill the substance on yourself, barring some obscene temperature in excess of 200 degrees, the court will often find that the blame lies with you. On the other hand, if the substance gets on you through the negligence of others, then a jury will be sympathetic. If you want to discuss a burn case, let me know