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E-Cigarette Fires & Explosions Involving Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Batteries

The popularity of e-cigarettes has grown tremendously in the United States and around the world within the past decade.  Unfortunately, as e-cigarettes have become more fashionable and their use has steadily increased amongst smokers looking for a nicotine-free alternative, more and more e-cigarette devices are catching fire or exploding while being used, often resulting in devastating and life altering injuries.  As of 2016, the United States Fire Administration had documented nearly 200 separate incidents of explosions or fires associated with e-cigarettes in the United States alone, with many more incidents believed to be unreported. Of these, over 130 resulted in injuries, nearly 40 of which were categorized as severe; i.e., burn injuries, neurological injuries and/or loss of teeth, and over 80 being characterized as resulting in moderate injuries (burns, lacerations, smoke inhalation).  In 10 of these explosions, a major fire occurred as well. Almost 70% of these injuries occurred while the device was in the user’s pocket or actively in use.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that simulate tobacco smoking by emitting a heated vapor that emulates smoke.  Their designs vary greatly. At present, there are over 450 different brands of e-cigarettes in use in the United States.  Some devices look like traditional cigarettes, others look like flashlights. At their core, e-cigarettes work in essentially the same manner.  Each device has an electric heating element (atomizer) to vaporize a flavored liquid known as the “juice.” Automatic e-cigarettes activate the heating coil when the user takes a drag.  Manual e-cigarettes have a switch or button that the user presses to energize the heating element.

What Causes an E-Cigarette to Explode or Catch Fire?

Although there are several potential causes for e-cigarette fires and explosions, the most predominant reason appears to be overheating or instability associated with the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that e-cigarettes utilize to energize the heating element.  As most e-cigarette users know, the vast majority of e-cigarettes utilize a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that resembles a traditional AA battery. What most e-cigarette users don’t know, however, is that the majority of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that can be used in e-cigarettes do not have internal circuitry within the battery that protects against the battery overheating or becoming unstable.

The reason for this lack of internal circuitry is that battery manufacturers generally design and manufacture these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to be used in other products (like computers, or battery packs for power tools), products which have built-in protective circuitry to prevent overheating or instability. These manufacturers, therefore, don’t spend the time or the money to incorporate internal protective circuitry within these batteries themselves.  The failure to do is nothing short of shocking in light of the fact that these battery manufacturers have clear knowledge and an understanding that these batteries can overheat or be overcharged, resulting in fires or explosions, and more importantly, that these batteries can be purchased by consumers for use outside of the devices that contain the needed protective circuitry, i.e., e-cigarettes.

One of the most common types of lithium-ion batteries that is used in e-cigarettes is what is known as an 18650 battery.  The term “18650” refers to the batteries dimensions. Although battery manufacturers will argue that their 18650 batteries are only designed to be used in devices that contain protective circuitry (like a power tool battery pack), even a cursory search of online retailers (like Amazon) will show thousands of listings for this type of rechargeable battery, all being sold individually, outside of devices with protective circuitry.  In fact, most e-cigarette retailers now sell these types of batteries in two-packs for use in e-cigarettes. Battery manufacturers are well aware of the sale of these batteries, but do little to nothing to prevent the same and/or warn users of the potential for injuries (aside from perhaps including a warning on the battery wrapping). Although the sellers (and even some manufacturers) will often state in literature that accompanies or advertises these batteries that they  are “protected,” in many cases, they are simply not or they contain limited protections against just a few types of internal failures.

So how does regular use of a rechargeable lithium ion battery in an e-cigarette result in a fire or explosion?   Two of the most common ways are:

Overcharging the Battery

Generally speaking, all rechargeable batteries contain a maximum voltage, i.e., 4.0 volts.  Batteries that are charged to a level beyond 4.0 volts are at risk of overheating and exploding.   Put simply, when the batteries are depleted in an e-cigarette and then placed in a charger for recharging, the battery charger should have what is known as a charging cutoff voltage for that particular battery (i.e., 4.0 volts), and should not charge the battery beyond 4.0 volts.  Most battery chargers have these protection circuits. If, however, the battery charger does not have that protective circuitry itself, then the battery could be charged to a level greater than the cutoff value, thereby causing a risk of explosion, because the batteries themselves do not generally have these internal protective circuits.  

Over-Discharging the Battery

The term over-discharge refers to a scenario in which a battery’s voltage has discharged to a level below what is known as the internal low voltage cut-off (level below which the battery will not operate a device effectively).  In a 4.0 volt battery, for example, the internal low voltage cut-off could be 2.0 volts. Batteries that are over-discharged (below 2.0 volts) and then fully recharged are at risk of overheating and exploding. Generally speaking, most batteries that are used in e-cigarettes do not contain any internal protections that prevent the battery from being discharged below the internal low voltage cut-off.  Similarly, most of the manual e-cigarette devices do not contain any such protective circuitry. Thus, e-cigarette users who extensively use their e-cigarette over a long period of time, run the risk of drawing down the voltage of their rechargeable battery to a level below the internal low voltage cut-off (something that in many e-cigarettes is not monitored). That battery is then subsequently fully recharged and can, in many instances, become unstable, overheat and explode.  

Can I Sue for Injuries from Explosive or Defective E-Cigarettes?

At Bennett & Heyman, our lawyers have successfully handled litigation involving serious injuries caused by e-cigarette explosions due to overcharge and/or overdischarge.  In some instances, depending on the state that the injuries occurred, this litigation can involve product liability claims against vape shops or other e-cigarette distributors or e-cigarette device manufacturers.   In some states, like Maryland, the causes of action are generally filed against the battery manufacturers themselves. In our firm’s experience, multi-national battery manufacturers generally aggressively defend these cases and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to prosecute these matters successfully.

Litigation will most often involve both non-destructive testing and destructive testing of the battery in question. Additionally, when prosecuting these cases, it is paramount that the plaintiff’s attorney’s office retain an electrical engineering expert with considerable experience in the characteristics of lithium ion batteries, the design and manufacturing process associated with lithium ion batteries and the failure analysis of lithium ion batteries.  It is also important that one ascertain such things as: (1) the precise date of the battery’s purchase; (2) the pattern of the battery’s usage; (3) the battery’s usage on the day of the incident; (4) the charging pattern of the subject battery and how it was charged prior to the incident; (5) whether the battery had any external damage prior to the incident in question; (6) what other devices the battery may have been used in other than the e-cigarette; and (7) how the battery was stored prior to the incident.  In addition, it is essential that any companion batteries (batteries purchased along with the incident battery) are preserved for inspection, any and all chargers used to charge the battery are preserved for inspection and that the e-cigarette device itself is preserved for inspection.

If You Were Injured by an E-Cigarette or Lithium-Ion Battery Explosion, Our Baltimore Personal Injury Attorneys Will Fight for You

If you or a loved one has been injured as the result of an e-cigarette or lithium ion battery explosion, call the attorneys at Bennett & Heyman at 410-429-7856 for a free consultation.  The injuries and damages that often are associated with e-cigarette explosions can be devastating, resulting in significant past and future medical expenses. It is important that you select an attorney with familiarity in this type of litigation to fully protect your interests and right of recovery.

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