Exploding Smartphones and Serious Personal Injuries
Oct. 8, 2016
If you are injured by any defective consumer product in Texas, you’ll need an experienced, aggressive lawyer – a Galveston or Houston product liability attorney, for example – to guide you through the legal system and advocate on your behalf. Those who manufacture and sell consumer products have a legal obligation to ensure that those products are safe and will not cause harm.
If you own a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, turn the device off right now. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says consumers should “stop using and power down” the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 immediately. It’s been recalled because more than a hundred Galaxy Note 7s have spontaneously exploded and burst into flames. In September, federal regulators formally recalled one million Note 7 smartphones after scores of users reported the device caught fire while being charged.
One of those users is Nathan Dornacher of St. Petersburg, Florida. On September 5, Mr. Dornacher left his Samsung Galaxy Note 7 plugged into his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee as he and his wife unloaded the items they had purchased at Labor Day garage sales. When they returned to the Jeep, they saw fire inside and heard explosions. Mr. Dornacher bought the Samsung phone about a week before the fire. In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Samsung said it was “aware of the incident” and is “working with Mr. Dornacher to investigate his case and ensure we do everything we can for him.”
WHAT WOULD CAUSE A SMARTPHONE TO EXPLODE?
Samsung separately released a statement saying that it has halted all sales and shipments of the Galaxy Note 7 and that the company is cooperating with cellular carriers and governments around the globe to offer exchanges and refunds to Samsung customers. What would cause a smartphone to explode, and are the users of other smartphones also at risk? What is your legal recourse if you or someone you love is injured by an exploding smartphone – or by any other exploding electronic device?
Most smartphones are powered by tiny lithium ion battery packs that can pose a safety risk because, unlike other rechargeable batteries, lithium ion batteries contain a flammable liquid electrolyte, and they stay pressurized. When they are overcharged or overheated – left in a hot automobile in the summer, for example – lithium ion batteries may suffer cell rupture leading to an explosion. It’s not only the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that poses a risk. Any device with a lithium ion battery has the potential to explode.
If the thin plastic between the positive and negative sides of the battery ruptures, lithium ions then heat up the liquid electrolyte, and a lithium ion battery can burst into flames. On September 15, Bloomberg News reported that according to Korea’s Agency for Technology and Standards, a manufacturing error “placed pressure on plates contained within battery cells,” of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries, bringing “negative and positive poles into contact.”
Samsung basically squeezed the batteries too hard during the manufacturing process. Why is pressure a key element? According to MIT Professor Don Sadoway, cell phone batteries are manufactured by literally pressing battery components together. The public demands as much battery capacity as possible. Professor Sadoway explains, “Imagine if you had a toilet paper roll and it wasn’t packed tightly. With the same size roll, you’d run out a lot quicker.” Samsung, apparently, simply tried to cram too much capacity into the Galaxy Note 7 batteries.
IS THE GALAXY NOTE 7 THE ONLY DANGEROUS SMARTPHONE?
However, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is not the first phone to pose a risk of explosion, and it isn’t even the first major phone recall. More than a decade ago, in 2004, CNET reported, “Bad batteries have made 2004 a year of living dangerously with cell phones. Watchdog groups devoted to the safety of consumer products say they’ve fielded dozens of reports this year of cell phone meltdowns that have resulted in injury and property damage.” Twelve years later, not much has changed.
The public first became aware of the problem in 2003 after two explosions with injuries in the Netherlands. A 33-year-old Dutch woman was injured in August of that year when her Nokia phone exploded in her fingers. A Dutch supermarket employee sustained burn injuries just two months later when a Nokia phone exploded in his hip pocket. Eventually, in 2007, Nokia ended up recalling 46 million phone batteries.
Kyocera Wireless also recalled about a million batteries in 2004 after receiving 14 reports of battery failures causing property damage and burn injuries. Some of the cell phone batteries shipped from the battery manufacturer to Kyocera appeared to have been counterfeits. Lithium ion batteries made by authorized manufacturers include vents to release excess heat, but counterfeit batteries may not. However, any lithium ion battery can overheat and explode if those heat vents are blocked. And just dropping a phone with a counterfeit battery can cause an explosion, depending on the angle and force of the impact.
WHAT ARE THE STATISTICAL CHANCES OF BEING INJURED?
Although the risks of lithium ion batteries have been recognized for years, the batteries remain popular with consumers because they are substantially smaller and lighter than acid-based batteries. Statistically, the risk is actually low. A Samsung official told the Yonhap News Agency that fewer than 0.01 percent of all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries that have been sold were defectively manufactured. Another Samsung representative told CNET, “It is a very rare manufacturing process error.”
Statistics, of course, provide no comfort if you suffer burn injuries or if you lose a finger or an eye because your phone explodes. At least 112 Samsung Galaxy Note 7s have reportedly exploded – 92 in the United States. It’s the injuries these phones can cause, and the increasing frequency of the explosions, that makes the Note 7 a dangerous consumer product. If you own one, turn it off and have it replaced right away. If you are injured by an exploding smartphone or by any other exploding consumer device, discuss your rights with a product liability lawyer near you – an experienced Galveston or Houston product liability attorney, for example.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 owners can and should return or exchange their phones as quickly as possible. In the United States, new Galaxy Note 7s became available on September 21, but current owners should probably call their carriers to get precise details. The battery in the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is made by a different manufacturer. Alternatively, consumers can choose a different Samsung phone or simply take a cash refund and choose another alternative.
By: Joseph Onwuteaka
Joseph Onwuteaka has spent more than three decades studying the practice of law and the many different specialized areas of litigation. He draws from this knowledge and experience to advise his clients with their best interest in mind, and nobody else's. His motives are genuine and his expertise is apparent in the courtroom. You can trust Joseph Onwuteaka, P.C., to handle all of your legal matters so that you can move on with your life.