What Are E-Cigarettes?
First patented in 2003, e-cigarettes (or, “e-cig,” “personal vaporizer“) are battery-powered devices that simulate tobacco smoking by producing a heated vapor resembling smoke. Since becoming commercially available in 2007, e-cigarettes have grown popular as an alternative to smoking, but are even popular with those who have never smoked traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products. The rapid rise in the popularity of e-cigarettes is due, in part, to the many brands and “flavors” which have become available for sale in just a few years’ time. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as of January 2014, 2.5 million Americans partake of the 466 brands of e-cigarettes and 7,764 unique flavors available.
E-cigarettes’ designs vary widely. Some look like traditional cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; others resemble flashlights. Some e-cigarettes appear to be a pack of cigarettes with a protruding tube. Like their design, the cost of these devices has a wide range – from $30.00 to over $300.00 – depending on the device’s battery size, liquid capacity, and vapor output.
How Do E-Cigarettes Work?
E-cigarettes have a heating element that vaporizes a liquid solution, also known as “juice.” Juice typically contains a mixture of propylene glycol (PG) (which increases flavor); vegetable glycerin (VG) (which increases vapor); nicotine; and flavorings. “Automatic” e-cigarettes activate the heating element when a user takes a drag from the device; whereas, manual e-cigarettes have a switch that the user depresses. This switch energizes the heating element to make the heated vapor.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, “most manufactured devices have built-in timeout features that prevent overheating.” In addition, “many have locking features to prevent the switch from being activated in a pocket or purse.”
Can E-Cigarettes Explode?
Despite such design protections, numerous reports have surfaced, indicating that e-cigarettes may have a tendency to explode when not handled properly. In its report entitled “Electronic Cigarettes Fires And Explosions,” the U.S. Fire Administration found that, between 2009 and August 2014, U.S. media sources had reported at least 25 incidents of exploding e-cigarettes. In most of these incidents, the devices exploded while the battery was being charged, but in some cases, the devices exploded while being used. Injuries, including severe burns and disfigurement, occurred in a few of the incidents.
Florida Man Disfigured By Exploding E-Cigarette
One such incident involved a Florida man, Tom Holloway, who was using e-cigarettes to quit smoking. In 2012, Holloway suffered severe, disfiguring injuries when an e-cigarette exploded in his mouth. In addition to causing facial burns, the explosion knocked out some of Holloway’s front teeth and removed part of his tongue. According to local firefighters, the explosion can be blamed on the device’s battery. One firefighter reported that it would be like “trying to hold a bottle rocket in your mouth when it went off.” You can read more about this incident in an article from FindLaw’s Injured Blog here.
California Man In Critical Condition After E-Cigarette Explosion
Holloway’s case is not unique. Although the U.S. Fire Administration characterized injuries from exploding e-cigarettes as “rare,” reports of serious injuries from exploding e-cigarettes continue to mount. On February 8, 2015, for example, a California man suffered burns and cuts to his face when an e-cigarette exploded at a liquor store where the man worked. The e-cigarette exploded with enough force to break a glass display at the store, and left the man in critical condition at UC San Diego Medical Center’s burn unit.
Exploding E-Cigarettes Cause Severe Injuries, One Death In U.K.
Reports of severe injuries – and even death – have surfaced in the U.K. According to the BBC, in one of these incidents, a 62 year-old man was killed when an e-cigarette exploded, igniting an oxygen tank. It should be noted that firefighters suspect that the device exploded because it was being charged with a charger that was not the one provided with the e-cigarette.
In another incident from the U.K., a 48 year-old man who switched to e-cigarettes for health reasons suffered severe injuries when his e-cigarette overheated and exploded. The explosion showered the man’s legs with metal shrapnel, putting him in the hospital for 9 days. The explosion also caused a fire that consumed the man’s home.
With injuries such as these, products liability lawsuits for exploding e-cigarettes may well be on the horizon. In the U.S., products liability law is rooted in a case involving an exploding product. In Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal.2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944), a waitress was injured when a Coca-Cola bottle spontaneously exploded in her hand. In a landmark opinion, the California Supreme Court held that the defendant could be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Most notably, in a concurring opinion, Justice Roger Traynor wrote that the doctrine of strict liability should be applied to manufacturers whose products cause injury to consumers. Traynor’s theory, ultimately, became the majority rule in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, 59 Cal.2d 57, 377 P.2d 897 (1963), and the rule of law across the U.S.
Consequently, suits by injured consumers involving exploding e-cigarettes could raise a number of theories for possible financial recovery. Such suits might allege a “design defect,” for example. In other words, the injuries caused by the e-cigarette could have been avoided had a different design been adopted by the manufacturer. Injured parties might also allege a “manufacturing defect” – that is, an error in the manufacturing process rendered the device harmful to consumers. Other theories of possible recovery could include a failure to warn as well as a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability (that a device be sold in good working order).
However, manufacturers of e-cigarettes could still raise a number of defenses to such suits. Misuse of the product by the injured plaintiff is one such defense, and may prove viable in cases (like the death case from the U.K.) where the e-cigarette apparently exploded because the consumer was charging its battery with a device not recommended by the manufacturer.