Many of us associate burns with fires and flames, but hot liquids are actually the more likely culprit when it comes to burn injuries. Over a half million burns in the U.S. are caused by scalds annually; the age populations at highest risk are those under 5 and over 65 years of age. Scalds can be life-threatening and life-scarring; they are the No. 1 reason that children under the age of 4 suffer from burns. In Indiana, more than 5,000 scald burns were treated in emergency departments during 2013, and 1,743 of those burns happened to children 19 and younger.
Hot water straight from the tap is the reason for 17 percent (one in every six) of all hospitalizations for childhood scalds. We can do much to prevent tap water scalds, but sometimes the injury isn’t a parent’s fault. Instead, negligence by landlords and a host of others can be the reason that a young child, or an elderly person, bears the agonizing pain of a scald burn. In fact, such injuries are more likely to happen in low-income housing.
If your child has suffered a scald burn due to another’s negligence, the scalding injury lawyers at McNeely Stephenson are ready to assist you. Contact us to find out more about your legal options.
Scalds and Hot Water Heaters
It takes only five seconds for a 140-degree liquid to cause a third-degree burn, which penetrates skin to the underlying tissues, can damage nerves, and often requires skin graft repairs. When a liquid’s temperature reaches 149 degrees, only two seconds of exposure creates a third-degree burn, and, at 156 degrees, it’s a mere one second of exposure. Keep in mind that these temperatures are well below the boiling point of water, which is 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
It might surprise you to know that new water heaters are factory-set at 140 degrees, the temperature recommended by OSHA to combat the bacteria responsible for Legionnaires’ disease. But a 140-degree temperature can mean a horrible scald for an unfortunate child or senior. If you live in an apartment and the water heater’s temperature is not under your control, it is worth checking with your landlord to see how high your hot water heater’s thermostat is set. To prevent severe scalds, the recommendation is that hot water heaters be set no higher than 120 degrees, because it takes more than five minutes of exposure at that temperature to cause a serious burn. This temperature setting provides enough time for an adult to escape the hot water or for a child to be rescued from it.
However, one of the top reasons that water can be too hot comes from the lack of a mixing valve. A mixing valve can either be installed at the source (the water heater) or it can be installed at the usage point, meaning at the sink or tub. Not having a mixing valve installed can mean that the temperature setting on the water heater should not be trusted, because the fluid at the top of a water heater, where water is piped from, is hotter than the water at the bottom (this is called the “stacking” effect). If the water in the tank is not mixed, the temperature can fluctuate significantly, resulting in a scald burn. Additionally, during any water heater’s cycle, there can be a margin of error of 12 to 18 degrees in temperature. This occurs apart from any stacking effect.
Hot water heaters should also be regularly flushed out to reduce calcium deposits. Such deposits diminish the ability of the water heater to measure the water’s temperature. With an older hot water heater that has not been maintained, water can run much hotter or colder than it should. Homeowners can take care of this, but for persons living in rental units, it is often not under their control.
Negligence and Indiana Premises Liability
Some of the cases we have handled at McNeely Stephenson where children were burned in sinks and tubs occurred in apartment complexes and dealt with the legal concepts of negligence and premises liability. The reasons for scald burns are numerous:
- Maintenance staff who may not follow state laws and regulations
- Staff or others who may not adequately maintain the heaters and plumbing system
- Out-of-date hot water heaters that complicate or prevent an accurate monitoring of water temperature
- Other issues that translate into negligence on the part of the landlord or others
Such negligence is covered under premises liability; and in Indiana, we have laws that regulate these situations. Briefly, premises liability is the legal concept that someone else could be responsible for an injury if they were reckless or negligent. An Indiana property owner owes a duty of care so that guests and those on the property to transact business are not injured. An owner must take reasonable care to keep others from injury in order to avoid being considered negligent.
A property owner also has a duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition. Neglecting hot water heating systems could be construed as not fulfilling the duty to maintain, bringing negligence into the legal picture. Because many scalds can be prevented, different individuals and entities can be answerable under premises liability for a scalding burn. The most common example is a landlord, because they are responsible for the proper working order of hot water systems used by the tenants to wash items and bathe. Not living up to legal responsibilities can be grounds for negligence. If the landlord is shown to have knowingly defied the law, punitive damages can possibly be won.
Other examples of those who could be considered negligent under premises liability include:
- Daycare facilities
- Hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities
- Businesses such as hotels, gyms, restaurants, and workplaces
- Indiana statutes say that hot water for washing “shall be maintained between 105 degrees F. and 120 degrees F.” Anti-scald devices are mandatory.
Other Liability Situations
Other than premises liability, others can be held liable in certain cases of scald injuries involving hot water heaters and plumbing systems. They are:
- Water heater manufacturers. Should a water heater malfunction, it’s possible that the manufacturer could be held liable if the heater is found to be defective under product liability law.
- The plumbing company that installed the hot water system. If the contractor that installed the hot water system failed to do so correctly, especially the parts that regulate the temperature, they might be liable.
Because so many scalding cases involve young kids, keep in mind that, under Indiana’s joint liability laws, children below the age of 7 are legally incapable of contributing to negligence. Children aged 7 to 14 are generally considered by the court to be incapable of contributing to negligence, though such a provision is not found in the legal statutes.
Finally, Indiana law does not require landlords to install anti-scald devices to keep water temperature from rising above 120 degrees. If it is within your power to do so and you have young children, or an elderly loved one to worry about, anti-scald devices can save everyone a lot of pain and heartbreak.
At McNeely Stephenson, we believe justice matters.
If someone else’s negligence caused or contributed to the situation which caused you to suffer a burn injury, they and not you should bear the costs associated with your treatment and recovery. This could include both economic and non-economic damages. “Economic damages” are things such as past and future medical bills; the cost of rehabilitation; assistive devices and prostheses; and lost wages. Typical “non-economic” damages are compensation for pain and suffering, and for mental anguish resulting from the injury.
We suggest you talk with the Indianapolis child injury lawyers at McNeely Stephenson. Both Mike Stephenson, with his more than three decades of experience, and Brady Rife, with his diverse experience in personal injury litigation, will commit the highest standards of client care to your case. Let our Indianapolis burn injuries lawyers fight for you. Call us today or, if you prefer, use our confidential online contact form for a free consultation.