Tattoo Infections: Causes, Treatment, & Legal Options

Tattoos have become widespread, and for many, they provide a highly personal form of expression. But tattoos are not limited to pictures and symbols. Tattoos also come in the form of permanent makeup and cosmetic medical procedures.

With so many tattoo shops, customers inevitably run into shops and artists who cut corners. Unfortunately, their failures can lead to serious injuries to their customers.

Here is some information you should know about tattoo infections and your legal options for pursuing a personal injury claim against a tattoo shop.

Health Risks of Tattoos

Tattooing uses needles to inject ink into the dermal layer of the skin. This makes the tattoo permanent but introduces a path for microbes to enter the skin.

Tattoos become infected when bacteria enter the body through the punctures produced by tattooing. Tattoos also expose customers to the transmission of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis. Also, some customers might have an allergic reaction to the ink.

Normal Tattoo Reactions

After receiving a tattoo, you might experience some discomfort. After all, tattoo guns make thousands of puncture wounds in the skin every minute. Many tattoos take hours, if not days, to complete.

Typical symptoms after a tattoo include pain, itching, and dryness. The skin at the tattoo site might turn red and experience minor swelling. The body’s immune system produces these symptoms as it heals the tattoo and locks the ink into place.

Abnormal Tattoo Reactions

Any time a tattoo develops symptoms that last more than a few days, the tattoo might be infected.

Some symptoms of infection include:

  • Ongoing swelling, redness, or tenderness
  • Warm skin at the tattoo site
  • Seeping pus
  • Lingering odors

When an infection becomes systemic, you might experience general aches and pains, fever, and fatigue. Systemic infections pose a serious health risk. You should see a physician if the tattoo becomes infected or the infection appears to spread from the tattoo site.

Treatment of Tattoo Infections

Doctors treat tattoo infections with oral or injected antibiotics. In rare cases, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) might infect a tattoo. This bacterium is resistant to many common antibiotics. Treatment might require the use of powerful – and expensive – antibiotics. Doctors might also recommend emergency surgery to clean and drain the infected tissue.

Liability for tattoo infections is based on negligence. If a tattoo shop or independent tattoo artist behaves in a negligent way and causes an injury, they must compensate the injured customer.

General Principles of Negligence

Negligence requires proof of four elements:

  • Duty: The duty that a tattoo shop and artist owe to customers requires that they exercise reasonable measures to minimize the risk of injuries.
  • Breach: Breach of the duty occurs when the tattoo artist or shop fails to take reasonable steps to prevent infections.
  • Causation: The mistake (breach) must have caused an injury. Causation must be both “cause-in-fact” (part of the chain of events that led to the injury) and “proximate” (a reasonably foreseeable consequence).
  • Damages: The breach must result in an injury, like a skin infection.

To recover compensation for personal injury, a lawyer must have evidence that proves each of these elements.

Tattooing Negligence

Negligence by tattoo shops and artists can occur at three different times:

  • Before the tattoo: To meet the standard of care, the tattoo artist should warn the customer of possible side effects and complications from the tattoo. The artist should also interview the customer to identify any skin conditions or allergies that might lead to complications. If a tattoo artist fails to discuss warnings and identify risks, the artist may have been negligent.
  • During the tattoo: Reasonable measures during the tattooing process include disinfecting the equipment, sanitizing the tattoo site, washing hands, and wearing gloves. Failure to do any of these can expose the customer to infection or disease transmission.
  • After the tattoo: After completing the tattoo, the tattoo shop or artist should explain aftercare of the tattoo to minimize the risk of complications. For example, the shop or artist should explain how to keep the tattoo clean and care for the tattooed skin.

Keep in mind that even if the tattoo shop fails to meet the standard of care, you can only recover compensation if you can prove that the failure caused your injury.

Product Liability in Tattoo Injury Cases

Sometimes tattoo infections and injuries can be a consequence of defective equipment, and have nothing to do with how the tattoo artist or parlor acted. If your infection happened because a batch of ink was defective or a piece of tattooing equipment didn’t work properly, you could have a legitimate product liability claim for damages against the manufacturer or retailer.

Shifting Blame to You

One of the most potent defenses for the tattoo shop or artist will be to shift blame for your injuries to you. Under Pennsylvania law, any blame the shop and artist can place on you will reduce their liability. Worse yet, if the shop and artist can shift more than half of the blame to you, they will not be required to pay any of your damages.

A few ways that the shop can shift blame to you include:

  • Liability waiver: Most shops and artists will require you to sign a liability waiver. A waiver will not always shield them from liability for negligence. Thus, a shop might still be liable if it fails to clean its equipment even if you signed a waiver. But a waiver could make your lawyers’ job more difficult.
  • Assumption of risk: When you undertake an inherently risky activity, you generally cannot sue for known and visible risks. Thus, if a tattoo artist performs your tattoo without gloves, and you failed to object or ask that the artist wear gloves, you might have assumed the risks that arose.
  • Contributory negligence: If your actions contributed to your injury, your compensation will be reduced or cut off. For example, if a jury finds you 20% responsible for the infection because you failed to keep the tattoo clean, the shop and artist only pay 80% of your damages.

To successfully shift blame to you, the shop or artist will need to explain the specific facts that justify the shift.

Resolving a Tattoo Infection Case

More likely than not, the tattoo shop or artist will have liability insurance. Therefore, your lawyer will need to negotiate with an insurance company to settle your case. If a settlement is not possible, your lawyer might need to file a lawsuit against the shop or artist.