By Brian Albert
Fireworks are beautiful to watch. They’re symbols of freedom. They’re staples of summer. And they’re dangerous products that kill, maim, and burn. They fill hospitals beds, inflate insurance premiums, and keep the courts busy with personal injury lawsuits.
Here are the stats from 2011 (National Fire Protection Association):
- 17,800 fires causes by fireworks, resulting in 8 deaths, 40 injuries, and $32 million in direct property damage
- 9,600 emergency room visits
- 26 percent of of the victims are under the age of 15
This year, both on July 4th and all summer long, should be no different.
“I have no doubt that ER rooms will be filled with people with minor injuries who, whether drinking too much or not paying attention or joking with someone, will hurt themselves or others,” says attorney Aaron Marks of the Atlanta, Georgia law firm of Marks Law Group, LLC.
If you’re one of those victims, you may be entitled to damages, depending on the circumstances of the injury.
You’ll first need to determine who to sue. You probably won’t be suing the manufacturer or distributor of the fireworks. The manufacturers are often foreign companies. And, unlike cigarettes, fireworks aren’t considered inherently dangerous products.
“They can be annoying and they can be loud and they can hurt your hand. Or they can blow your arm off. Or they can burn you severely. But, if they’re handled properly, unless they’re defectively made, they shouldn’t hurt anybody,” says Marks.
A typical lawsuit involves suing the homeowner who hosted the party where the accident happened. But, very often, you’ll have no case at all, because you accepted the risk by going to the fireworks party.
“Let’s say you have a July 4th party. You invite your friends over, and you tell them on the invitation, there’s going to be fireworks, and everyone hears that. There are known dangers to fireworks. So, if you’re outside watching the fireworks with your buddies, you have some risk there and you take that risk voluntarily,” says Marks. “But, at the same time, if you’re on the other side of the party and you’re fifty feet away, and a guy decides to be funny and launches fireworks at the other side of the party, he’s liable. He meant to do it.”
The first thing courts look at when determining who is liable for a fireworks injury is whether the person using the fireworks was negligent.
“Typically, the situation is going to be, did the person shooting the fireworks fail to exercise the same degree of care that would’ve been used by an ordinary person in the same circumstances,” says attorney Greg Hargrove of the Fort Worth, Texas law firm of McDonald Sanders.
Fireworks have instructions. If you read the instructions and use the fireworks as directed, your liability may be limited. However, if you either fail to read the instructions or use the fireworks in a way that wasn’t intended by the manufacturer, a court may determine that you’re responsible for paying damages to the injured person.
Another factor that courts look at when determining negligence is whether you were legally allowed to be using fireworks in the place where the accident occurred.
“A lot of cities ban shooting fireworks within their city limits. If you’re violating that statute, and you start a fire at your neighbor’s house, that may constitute negligence per se because it’s a violation of the statute,” says Hargrove. “That makes it an easier case.”
According to Hargrove, if you’re injured, you should do the following:
- Get medical attention
- See if there are witnesses
- Take pictures of the evidence
- Save the bottle rocket that hit you
This evidence will help ensure that you receive the maximum compensation for your injuries.
While lawyers help people who were injured by fireworks, medical groups and the insurance industry are fighting to ban or more strictly limit the sale and use of consumer fireworks.
“As to the broader issue of fireworks, we see it as less about premiums and more about people,” says Kevin Smith of Allstate. “The injuries — some of them horrific — that can come from mishandling of fireworks can be avoided by following basic safety tips, so following the advice of organizations like the National Fire Prevention Association or the National Safety Council is a good idea not because it can prevent a change in insurance rates, but because it can prevent a tragedy.”
Here are the fireworks safety tips from the National Safety Council:
- Never allow young children to handle fireworks.
- Older children should use fireworks only under close adult supervision.
- Light fireworks outdoors in a clear area away from onlookers, houses and flammable materials.
- Light one device at a time; maintain a safe distance after lighting.
- Do not allow any running or horseplay while fireworks are being used.
- Never ignite devices in a container.
- Do not try to re-light or handle malfunctioning fireworks; douse and soak them with water and discard them safely.
- Keep a bucket of water nearby to fully extinguish fireworks that don’t go off or in case of fire.