It is only fitting that the month of June is also known as Fireworks Safety Month, with the Fourth of July just around the corner. Whether it is Independence Day or a special event, it is crucial that we understand the laws and legal implications regarding fireworks to ensure a safe and enjoyable celebration.
A Brief History
First, a brief history behind fireworks. Many historians believe that fireworks originated in China in the second century B.C. The earliest form of “firecrackers” consisted of bamboo stalks that exploded when exposed to fire due to overheating of the hollow air pockets within. During the 6th to 9th century A.D., a Chinese alchemist developed the first man-made firework by mixing potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal – which was the first “gunpowder” – and placed it inside a hollowed-out bamboo stick. Fireworks made their way to Europe in the 13th century, and they eventually gained popularity during religious festivals and public entertainment. Early settlers of America brought their love for fireworks with them, making them a part of the very first Independence Day celebration. While July 4th remains the most significant day for fireworks in the United States, they are also used year-round for various celebrations, festivals, and sporting events.
Fireworks in California Law
In California, the “State Fireworks Law” (California Health & Safety Code §§ 12500, et seq.) lists items that qualify as fireworks and regulates the possession, sale, and use of fireworks. Violations of this law can result in criminal misdemeanor or felony convictions. However, it is essential to note that cities and counties within California can have their own ordinances with additional restrictions, which may ban or regulate the sale or use of fireworks permitted by state law. The City of Los Angeles, for example, strictly prohibits the use, possession, sale, or discharge of any fireworks, as all fireworks are considered explosive devices and are deemed extremely dangerous. (SEC. 57.55.01(A) Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC).)
“Safe and Sane” vs “Dangerous”
California classifies fireworks into two categories – “safe and sane” fireworks, which are legal, and “dangerous” fireworks, which are illegal without a special permit or license. “Dangerous” fireworks include items such as firecrackers, sparklers more than 10 inches long or more than a quarter inch in diameter, and other explosives deemed unsafe by the state fire marshal. On the other hand, “safe and sane” fireworks are labeled as such and are permitted for use.
While Californians over the age of 18 can legally purchase and use “safe and sane” fireworks, they can still be held liable for damages caused by their negligent use. Any firework can cause bodily injuries, such as burns, loss of limbs, and even death, as well as property damage (from the fire). Proving negligence requires establishing that the firework user owed a duty of care, breached that duty, and caused harm or injury. In ordinary negligence cases, a duty of care is determined by asking what an ordinary person would have done under similar circumstances. However, in California, the use of fireworks is considered to be an inherently dangerous activity, which causes the standard of care to be heightened. This heightened duty is known as “extreme caution.” It is no longer enough to do what an ordinary person would have done under similar circumstances. Instead, a person using fireworks “must be extremely careful . . . [and] the failure to use extreme caution is negligence.” (California Civil Jury Instructions No. 414.)
Examples of behaviors that breach the duty to exercise “extreme caution” include placing, throwing, igniting, or discharging dangerous fireworks at a person or crowd where injury can occur or create chaos, fear, or panic (California Health and Safety Code § 12680), as well as selling, using, or storing fireworks within 100 feet of where gasoline or other flammable liquids are stored or dispensed (California Health and Safety Code § 12679.).
Fireworks Injuries Can Lead to Compensation
An injured person in a firework-related incident may be entitled to recover compensation for his or her economic (or special) damages and non-economic (or general) damages. These incidents can potentially result in extensive injuries related to the explosives, ranging from burns to even death.
In F.H. v. Bourdet (San Benito County (2016)), defendants set up illegal fireworks in the front yard of a home when the fireworks tipped over and struck a 12-year-old boy who was walking in the street. The boy’s father witnessed the incident. The boy sustained burns to his left hand, left forearm, chest, and abdomen, as well as multiple fractures in his left hand. He underwent multiple surgeries but was left with permanent scars and deformity with residual numbness in his left hand. The boy sued the defendants for his bodily injuries, and the father had an emotional distress claim. The past medical expenses were $344,439.84, and future medical care and treatment costs were $65,856.70, which included four future surgeries and further therapy. Defendants settled the case with plaintiffs prior to trial for $2,200,000.00.
At Bradley, Gmelich + Wellerstein LLP, we hope that you can safely enjoy fireworks, whether it be from your backyard or viewing them from a distance. If there is any doubt that a firework is safe to use, consult the fire department or local authorities. It is better to be safe than sorry, as learned from the F.H. v. Bourdet case above. Happy Fourth of July!
About the Author
Royce Y. Huang is Special Counsel at Bradley, Gmelich + Wellerstein LLP. He has extensive experience in all phases of litigation, including law and motion, discovery, depositions, expert discovery, and Alternative Dispute Resolution. He has defended claims involving significant exposure and has successfully secured numerous dismissals, judgments, and favorable settlements on behalf of his clients.
His practice includes medical malpractice, catastrophic personal injury, elder abuse, wrongful death, product liability, premises liability, automobile liability, construction defect, and other general civil liability matters. He also has experience in commercial and employment litigation.