Mr. A was disabled and living in public housing. One night he was taking a bath when the unthinkable happened. He was terribly burned by scalding hot bathtub water and suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 10% of his body. He underwent multiple skin graft surgeries and spent over a month in the hospital. That’s when he retained BBGA personal injury attorney Michael Ruppersburg. Michael investigated the incident, filed suit against the public housing authority and secured an $800,000 settlement before the case went to trial. Because the case was against a public housing authority, Michael had to overcome the government’s sovereign immunity defense. The case was also filed in a rural, conservative county not known for large verdicts and settlements, and is believed to be one of the largest recoveries in county history.
Trapped in a Tub with Blistering Hot Water
Mr. A has a condition called spinal stenosis, which requires he use a wheelchair. Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that results in pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. Symptoms can include pain and numbness in the arms or legs, but it’s a gradual process. While Mr. A was in a wheelchair; he was still independent before the tragic incident took place. He could transfer himself in and out of his wheelchair without help. He could use a walker when walking short distances. He could handle his daily activities such as bathing, going to the bathroom, taking a shower, dressing himself and feeding himself without assistance.
The incident happened when Mr. A was taking a shower one evening. He sat on a shower stool while showering and used a handheld shower sprayer to bathe himself. When he was finished with his shower, he turned the water from the shower to the tub faucet and then turned off what he thought was the hot water.
The water immediately became scalding hot, so Mr. A picked up his feet to avoid getting burnt. When he did this, he lost his balance and fell into the bathtub, landing on his hand and knees as the scorching water continued to run. Because of his disability, Mr. A was unable to get out of the tub or turn off the scalding hot water. He was trapped in a tub that was continuing to fill with blistering hot water. He started to yell to his cousin for help.
Mr. A’s cousin heard his screams and came running to help. While she was able to turn the hot water off, she couldn’t lift Mr. A out of the hot water, so she immediately called 911.
Mr. A Suffers Third Degree Burns Over 10% of His Body
EMS arrived at the scene, removed Mr. A from the bathtub and transported him to a nearby hospital. Paramedics noted that he had second and third degree burns on his right hand, forearm, chest, both legs, and both of his feet. The burns had already begun to blister, and some skin was “hanging off.” Mr. A was covered with a burn sheet, given pain medication, and transported to a nearby hospital before being taken by an air ambulance to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed with scald burns over 10% of his body.
Mr. A underwent split-thickness skin graft surgery just days after arriving at Grady. During split-thickness surgery a surgeon removes a thin layer of skin from another part of the body and uses it to close the burned area of skin. Mr. A underwent three split-thickness surgeries in just over a month while in the hospital.
Now, Mr. A needs assistance with just about everything. The injuries to his legs and hands have greatly affected his mobility. He also suffers from muscle contractures, which means his muscles have tightened, making it impossible for him to get in and out of his wheelchair without help. He also now needs assistance taking a shower, going to the bathroom, and getting dressed. The burns have caused Mr. A to suffer from peripheral neuropathy, which basically means his nerves were damaged and he has ongoing pain from his burns.
Plumbing Code Requires Water Temperature to Be Set At 120 Degrees
The county where this happened has adopted the International Plumbing Code. The plumbing code requires that showers be equipped with anti-scald valves that limit the temperature to 120 degrees. An anti-scald valve limits the volume of hot water and mixes it with cold water to keep the temperature at or lower than 120 degrees. The reason behind this rule is that a water temperature of 120 degrees will not cause severe burns like Mr. A suffered.
Indeed, the Grady doctor who treated Mr. A was prepared to testify that given the extent of Mr. A’s burns the water temperature was set between 130 to 135 degrees, and that if the water temperature had been set at 120 degrees, Mr. A would not have been burned or burned only slightly.
Michael’s investigation showed that the Housing Authority had replaced the hot water heater for that apartment about two years before Mr. A’s incident. He discovered work orders where the person who lived in the apartment before Mr. A had complained multiple times that the water wasn’t hot enough. In response to those complaints, the work orders indicate that Housing Authority employees turned up the water temperature. Days after Mr. A was burned, an employee of the Housing Authority inspected the hot water and marked on their inspection report that the “temperature was adjusted.” The employee testified that when he checked the water temperature it was hotter than 130 degrees, and that he adjusted the temperature down to 120 degrees.
Michael’s investigation also discovered that the Housing Authority’s policy was to set the water temperature to 130 degrees, in violation of the plumbing code. A Housing Authority inspection document instructed employees to set the temperature to 130 degrees and Housing Authority employees testified that this was indeed Housing Authority Policy. After this incident, the Housing Authority changed its policy and began checking to make sure the water temperature was set no higher than 120 degrees.
Holding the Housing Authority Accountable
The Housing Authority claimed it was subject to sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that says the government cannot be sued for injuries except when it violates a ministerial duty, meaning a black and white rule. Michael overcame this defense by proving that the Housing Authority was required to follow the plumbing code limiting the shower temperature to 120 degrees, and that they violated it by setting the temperature in Mr. A’s shower higher than 130 degrees.
Under Georgia law, Michael also had to prove that the Housing Authority had knowledge that the water temperature was dangerously hot. Michael did so by showing that the Housing Authority had a policy to set the hot water temperature to 130 degrees and had repeatedly turned up the water temperature in response to the previous resident’s complaints. Michael also proved that the Housing Authority conducted an inspection of the apartment before Mr. A moved in, including the hot water heater. This showed that the Housing Authority had the opportunity to discover and correct the water temperature, giving it knowledge of the water temperature.
Before the case went to trial, the Housing Authority offered a settlement of $800,000, which Mr. A decided to accept. The funds will go into a trust that will provide for Mr. A’s needs and allow him to greatly improve his quality of life. We are pleased to have helped Mr. A with his case and we wish him the best.