Fireworks, also known as explosives, are legal in most states, but legal does not mean safe. When caught up in Fourth of July festivities, it’s easy to forget just how dangerous fireworks can be. Here’s what every American needs to know before lighting that fuse.
Fireworks Injury and Death Statistics
In January 1984, Michael Jackson suffered second-degree burns while filming a multi-million dollar Pepsi commercial. A special effect smoke bomb reportedly misfired and set Jackson’s hair on fire. Pepsi settled out of court for $1.5 million, which the singer donated to what is now the Michael Jackson Burn Center.
On July 4, 2015, NFL linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (“JPP”) nearly lost his right hand while setting off fireworks. Today, JPP is an advocate for fireworks safety and proactively shares graphic photos of his mangled hand. “It happened to me,” he said. “I’m trying to prevent it happening to other people.”
Unfortunately, such high-profile mishaps do little to deter the use (and careless misuse) of fireworks. The Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) collects annual data on fireworks-related injuries and deaths, and the numbers from 2018 remind us that fireworks remain dangerous:
- 5 deaths caused from direct impacts of fireworks in 2018
- 9,100 fireworks-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments in 2018
- $523,000 worth of noncompliant fireworks imported to the U.S. in 2018
CPSC took a closer look at the dangerous Fourth of July timeframe. Nearly 62 percent of fireworks injuries in 2018 occurred between June 22 and July 22:
- 36% of fireworks injuries were suffered to children younger than age 15. (Nearly half of the ER-treated individuals were under age 20.)
- 1,000 cases of emergency department-treated injuries were caused by firecrackers. Sparklers were responsible for sending 500 individuals to the ER; bottle rockets sent another 200.
- 44% of fireworks injuries treated in in emergency departments were burn injuries.
- 28% of fireworks injuries harmed hands and fingers, followed by legs (24%), eyes (19%), head/face/ears (15%), and arms (4%)
Personal injuries are not the only concern. A rogue spark from a community fireworks display set an entire forest ablaze. In 2017, a Fourth of July display at Blue Water Resort & Casino started a brush fire. A few years earlier, the same desert caught fire from illegal fireworks.
In dry climates and wooded areas, fireworks can cause wildfires, while in densely populated areas, homes and businesses can be at risk.
On the Federal Level
For a firework to be deemed legal, it must pass testing and evaluations approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). “The ATF regulates explosive devices by imposing safety guidelines,” explains Lance J. Robinson, a personal injury and criminal defense lawyer in New Orleans, “but there aren’t any federal laws regulating the sale of fireworks in America.”
“Each state and local municipality has their own ordinances delineating the class of allowed fireworks, regulations regarding storage, and whether a permit is necessary for possession of certain fireworks,” says Matthew Ryan, a personal injury attorney with Flushing Law Group.
State Fireworks Regulations
A number of states permit the sale of consumer fireworks, which are delineated into daytime, nighttime, and novelty classifications. Some states implement selling seasons, such as the Fourth of July or the New Year holiday, and some localities have noise ordinances that prohibit loud explosions.
The specific requirements for the different types of consumer fireworks purchased and/or used varies significantly from one area to another, so it is important to learn state and local laws. The American Pyrotechnics Association maintains a directory of state fireworks laws.
Massachusetts, for example, bans the sale and use of all consumer fireworks. Delaware residents can use sparklers and certain fireworks, but only on July 4 and December 31. In Hawaii, regulations are set on the county level. And you can purchase fireworks in Ohio, but you may not use them there. (In fact, you have 48 hours to take them out of the state.)
Reckless, Negligent, Liable
“Fireworks can cause injury to persons and property if they are not handled with reasonably due care,” cautions Ryan, “and as such any injury or damage that is the proximate result of either reckless or negligent action could be a liable offense.” In other words, you can be held accountable even if you’re not the person who strikes the match.
“Anyone who merely possesses fireworks or who has knowledge of a dangerous condition caused by illegal possession could be held liable should injury or damage occur,” says Ryan. “So, in essence, it is not only injuries or damage caused by the intentional conflagration of fireworks that cause injury or damage that a person needs to be mindful about, but any foreseeable injury that may flow from the inherent dangers.”
If you are injured by fireworks – or if someone was harmed/injured on your property – seek advice from an experienced attorney.