Toasted Skin Syndrome: The Unreasonably Dangerous Laptop

The Associated Press recently reported that if you use your laptop for too long while it sits on your lap, you could develop “toasted skin syndrome,” also known as erythema ab igne. This is a gross-sounding skin condition characterized by darkening or discoloration caused by long term exposure to relatively moderate heat levels – say from a heating pad, or a hot water bottle.

If true, this has the potential for unpleasantness.

According to the AP, there have been a handful of laptop related cases of this condition since 2007, including one law student whose laptop registered a balmy 125 degrees when tested. The story reported that the law student sat her laptop on her legs around six hours a day. Ouch. As if we needed another way for law school to be an uncomfortable experience.

But let’s think about this analytically. The problem is easily avoided by putting the computer on a desk, or by putting something between it and your legs. From a legal standpoint, though, Dell, Apple, and other manufacturers may have some challenges – some semantic in nature – in the defense of these claims. First, computers – no matter the kind – get hot. They don’t get as hot as they in long ago days, but 125 degrees is significant heat. Second, it’s called a “laptop.” They may have a hard time arguing that these people aren’t using the computers as they were intended when the user, in fact, places the computer on his or her lap. Sorry, but it’s true.
Still, like cases involving hot coffee or flying Wii controllers, we’re having a hard time getting past common sense when we think about potential lawsuits–if the laptop is sitting on your lap for six hours a day and it’s getting hot, you might want to think about moving it. It is an electronic device that generates heat, after all. In any event, we’ll keep watching this issue and post about any reported decisions.

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