Contemplating a serious burn injury is something that may make you wince, especially if you know someone to whom this has happened. Among burn injuries, scalding is second only to fire as a cause of burns. From 2005 to 2014, according to the American Burn Association, 34 percent of those admitted to burn centers for treatment had scalding injuries. Almost three-fourths of burn injuries (73 percent) requiring admission to a burn center occur at home. Children, the elderly, and those with disabilities are the ones most at risk for scalds; they may not be able to move away quickly from the source of the burn, or their skin may be so thin from age that the burn severity increases quickly as it penetrates the underlying tissue.
The Burn Foundation has stated that, annually in the U.S., more than 500,000 scald burns happen across all ages. For children four and under, scalds are the No. 1 cause of burns. Hot water and other liquids can cause painful injuries that are life-threatening and scarring. Indeed, hot liquids can burn someone as badly as fire, creating third-degree burns that require surgery and grafting. Scalding injuries can also arise from exposure to steam.
Defining Burns and Scalding Severities
All burns, regardless of their cause, are classified in severity from first to fourth degree:
- A first degree burn involves only the skin’s top layer. It is similar to a non-blistering sunburn.
- A second degree burn affects the skin’s second layer, often causing blisters.
- A third degree burn penetrates skin to the underlying tissues and often requires skin grafts. There can also be nerve damage.
- A fourth degree burn can go through muscle tissue and into bone. Amputation may be required.
Scalding burns can range from mild to severe, the same as burns caused by fire. A number of factors can determine how bad a burn becomes:
- The temperature of the liquid or steam that caused the burn. For example, an adult can suffer a scald from 155 degree Fahrenheit liquid after only one second. A liquid at 120 degrees can take minutes of contact to create a scalding injury.
- The length of time of contact with the liquid or steam.
- The amount of the body that is burned. A small area amounting to the size of, say, a quarter, will create fewer problems than a burn area that extends across large parts of the body. Burns on the extremities and face are exceptions to this; even if the burn covers a smaller area, it can be considered a significant problem.
- The kind of substance that created the burn. Anything that clings to the skin or is sticky will increase contact time and make the burn worse.
While a burn may be an accident, legal responsibility can come into play via the concept of premises liability.
What is Premises Liability?
Premises liability is the legal concept that someone else could be responsible for an injury if they were negligent. Briefly, a property owner owes a duty of care so that invitees (guests) and licensees (those on the property to transact business) are not injured. An owner must take reasonable care to avoid injuring others in order to avoid being considered negligent. Generally, if a situation on the property is known to be hazardous, the owner must tell the invitee or licensee about it to avoid negligence. For example, if a step is broken, those using the facility must be told so they can avoid using it.
If an individual or entity is responsible for the liquid or steam that created the burn, it’s possible that they could be found negligent depending on the underlying circumstances. Many scalds can be prevented, and many different individuals, entities, or situations could be responsible under premises liability for a scalding burn. Some examples include:
- Landlords are responsible for the proper working order of hot water systems used by the tenants to wash items and bathe. If a landlord doesn’t live up to their responsibility, they could be held liable.
- In Indiana, the statutes say that hot water for washing “shall be maintained between 105 degrees F. and 120 degrees F. An anti-scald device shall be provided to automatically control the hot water temperature so that it cannot exceed 120 degrees F.”
- Hotels and gyms. These business entities are required to keep water temperatures at safe levels and to ensure that equipment involving water or steam are in good repair so that invitees (guests or members) are not scalded.
- Business owners, employers, and workplaces. If a scald happens on the job, the employee will usually be able to file a worker’s compensation claim. If faulty equipment was responsible, then the manufacturer of the equipment might be held liable.
- Water heater manufacturers. If the water heater malfunctions, it’s possible that the manufacturer could be held liable, depending on circumstances.
- Plumbing companies 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.
- Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. These locations can be held liable if a resident is scalded. Often residents are helpless and rely on staff to ensure their safety. Facilities can be at fault if they don’t install required safety equipment, don’t maintain hot water systems, and don’t ensure that caretakers are qualified.
- These health care facilities can be held liable if a patient is scalded. Nurses, staff, and the hospital itself are all responsible for preventing scalds.
- Nannies or other child care persons. Those taking care of children have a responsibility to keep the child safe from water and other liquids that could cause scalds. If they do not exercise their duty of care, they could be considered negligent in a burn case.
- Restaurant owners. Customers who are scalded while eating there or picking up food might have a case if the owner was negligent.
The easiest way to prevent scalds in your own home is to make sure your water heating system is set to the proper temperature and is in good working order. We hope you’ll take a moment to check the temperature setting for your water heater. It is generally recommended that a water heater be set no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
More than five minutes of exposure is required to scald someone at 120 degrees F—enough time to rescue a child, or for an adult to escape the water.