On Friday, March 10, 2017, a charging hoverboard started a fire inside a Lexington Street row house in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The first spark occurred a little before 8:00 p.m., and soon grew to dangerous levels, setting off multiple alarms. Three young girls were inside the home at the time. Firefighters arrived and rescued two females and a man by ladder, and caught one girl who was forced to jump from a second-floor porch roof.

The three children were rushed to the hospital in critical condition, while two other individuals were treated for smoke inhalation. Two of the young girls, aged 3 and 10, suffered 95 percent full thickness burns, and later died from their injuries. A firefighter on his way to the blaze was also killed in a car crash.

Investigators later blamed the fire on a faulty lithium-ion battery in the hoverboard. Though other similar fires had caused property damage prior to this tragedy, this was the first fatal incident. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) examined over 60 cases of hoverboard fires since 2015, including two that resulted in homes that were burned down. Eventually, in July 2016, manufacturers recalled more than 500,000 hoverboards because of the risk of battery-related fires.

Exploding Lithium-Ion Batteries

Hoverboards aren’t the only lithium-ion battery-powered products on the market. Lithium battery-related fires and explosions have occurred with e-cigarettes, cell phones, computers, headphones, and more, causing serious injuries including burns, scarring, hearing and vision loss, and disfigurement. Pittsburgh residents who were seriously injured by these types of products are advised to speak to the lithium-ion attorneys at Chaffin Luhana immediately.

What is a Lithium-Ion Battery?

A lithium-ion battery is a type of rechargeable battery that uses lithium, the lightest of all metals, as a source of power. Lithium ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode while the product is in use, and then back from the positive to the negative during charging.

Sony was the first company to make lithium-ion batteries widely available on the market, but because these batteries can pack a lot of energy into a small space, other manufacturers soon followed. Whereas an older nickel-based battery pack would require three 1.2-volt cells, it takes just one lithium-ion pack to produce 3.6 volts.

That made lithium-ion batteries the optimal choice when it came to powering up gadgets that we now take for granted. The batteries are in our cell phones, laptops, headphones, tablets, and other products and they allow manufacturers to create products in slim, small, and low-weight designs that fit more easily into our on-the-go lifestyles.

Lithium-ion batteries are low-maintenance, don’t require scheduled cycling to prolong life, hold their charge better than other rechargeable batteries, and cause little harm when disposed. But the overall design can cause some safety concerns if manufacturers don’t include certain safeguards.

What’s the Problem with Lithium-Ion Batteries?

A lithium-ion battery is inherently fragile compared to older batteries. If manufacturers aren’t careful with their design, or if the battery is damaged somehow, it can short-circuit, which can result in overheating and a potential fire.

During a short-circuit, one part of the battery gets too hot and can’t cool down fast enough. This creates a chain reaction known as a “thermal runaway” that allows heat to build up in the battery.

A short-circuit may occur if the thin piece of polypropylene that separates the electrodes is somehow moved, damaged, or poorly designed. This would allow the electrodes to touch and quickly overheat. The large Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cell phone recall (because of fires) has been blamed on a faulty separator. Indeed, the plastic separator has become thinner and thinner with new batteries as manufacturers try to get more power out of a smaller package.

The batteries are also filled with a flammable substance that can combust quickly when heated. Exposure to oxygen only exacerbates this problem. The substance is also mixed with a compound that can burn human skin, making potential injuries more serious.

Overall, when you consider how many lithium-ion batteries are in use today (over a billion) compared to how many fires and explosions have occurred, you realize that on the whole, these batteries are very safe. The problem occurs when manufacturers take short-cuts.

Manufacturing Short Cuts Result in Consumer Injuries

Researchers showed this to be true in an April 2015 study. Using high-tech imaging techniques, they tracked the evolution of structural damage and subsequent overheating in lithium-ion batteries, and found that the use of certain techniques could mitigate processes that lead to fires and explosions.

“The presence of certain safety features can mitigate against the spread of some of this thermal runaway process,” said study author Paul Shearing. Indeed, during the study, in which the researchers purposely heated up the batteries, not all of them failed. Some had internal safety features that prevented dangerous reactions.

According to a 2016 article in Consumer Reports, normally, “it’s a manufacturing defect” that causes lithium-ion batteries to explode. If the separator is too thin, for example, and the chemicals in the battery start to heat up, that separator can degrade and eventually fail. Uneven separators that result in poor connectivity also increase risk of short-circuiting, as can those move when the phone is dropped or jostled.

Though the chargers that come with lithium-ion-powered products are typically safe, there are other, cheaper chargers out there that can charge up a battery too quickly, causing a short-circuit. Yet often manufacturers fail to warn consumers of this danger.

Other manufacturing or design problems, such as inadequate ventilation around the battery, a lack of proper insulation, tiny metal fragments left behind during production, holes in the sealing, and more can all cause problems down the road that could create a dangerous overheating situation.

It’s up to manufacturers to make sure that they design and produce a battery that is safe for its intended use. They must also warn consumers about any safety concerns, and give them appropriate instructions for safe operation—particularly when charging—of the product and its battery.

Some Products Associated with Exploding Lithium-Ion Batteries

A number of products have either been recalled or highlighted because of a risk for explosions. These include the following:

Other products powered by these batteries have also been associated with overheating and explosions. The batteries have been blamed, for example, for at least two fires in Tesla electric cars.

Types of Injuries Associated with Lithium-Ion Batteries

An exploding or burning lithium battery can cause all kinds of property damage. It can also cause serious injuries to the person using the product, to those standing nearby, and to those in the vicinity of any resulting fire.  Such injuries include:

Lithium-Ion Battery Lawsuits

The attorneys at Chaffin Luhana are actively investigating potential lithium-ion battery lawsuits. Individuals in the Pittsburgh and Ohio Valley areas who have used products with these batteries and then experienced serious injuries may be able to recover damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Call today for a free case evaluation at 1-888-316-2311.