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Burn Classification: First, Second and Third Degree Burns

Personal Injury Blog Post
April 22, 2016

Three blocks labeled one, two and threeWhen deciding how to compensate a burn survivor, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration. One of the largest factors is the severity of the injury. Burn injuries are typically classified into one of three main categories: first, second and third degree. Although we often hear these terms in common parlance, the differences are subtle and are typically not common knowledge.

First degree burns include only the outer layer of skin, otherwise known as the epidermis. Skin in this condition is usually red in appearance, and can be quite painful. An example of a first degree burn injury is a common sunburn. The skin will be dry, and healing usually occurs in 3-5 days. The injured epithelium peels away from the healthy skin during the healing process, and hospitalization is only required if the pain is intolerable or there is a fluid imbalance.

Second degree burns are further divided into two subcategories: partial thickness and full thickness. In partial thickness second degree burns, there may be blisters present and the injury will involve the epidermis and upper layers of the dermis. The wound will be pink or red in color, extremely painful, and may appear wet. The wound will blanch when pressure is applied. This type of burn heals in several weeks without grafting and scarring is usually minimal. Full thickness second degree burns can be red or white in appearance but will appear dry. This type of injury involves the destruction of the entire epidermis and most of the dermis. Sensation in the wounded area can be present, but is diminished. Blanching is sluggish or absent. Full thickness second degree burns will most likely need excision and skin grafting to heal.

Third degree burns are the most severe type. All layers of the skin are destroyed and the damage extends into subcutaneous tissues. Areas can appear black or white and will be dry or leathery in texture. The wound will not blanch when pressure is applied, and there is no pain involved because the pain receptors have been destroyed along with the rest of the dermis.

Legal Damages for Burn Injuries

After the degree of severity is determined, the facts of the incident must also be examined. The defendant's intentions play a major role in reaching a settlement; if the defendant acted deliberately or is found grossly negligent, then punitive damages may be assigned. Gross negligence as a legal concept must be taken on a case by case basis. An example of gross negligence is a manufacturer not conducting any testing on a product. In cases such as these, punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant who acted in a reprehensible manner. Therefore, a wealthy defendant will have to pay more in damages so that they feel penalized for their actions.

Burn survivors are oftentimes awarded a high settlement value due to pain, scarring, and physical disfigurement. An emotional pain and suffering award will take into account the extent and nature of the disfigurement. This compensation is based on the likelihood of the plaintiff being embarrassed, depressed, or otherwise experiencing diminished quality of life.

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