E-cigs bursting into flames are a potential gold mine for ambulance chasers.
Doug Gant was fresh off of work and chilling at a friend's house in Mays Landing, New Jersey, when his pants exploded. It happened in a matter of seconds: He was sitting at a table, he heard a hiss and a pop, and his leg was suddenly on fire. "I immediately got up, started smacking my pocket, and ran outside and disrobed in the front yard. I was like, 'I'm OK, I'm alright.' But then I looked at my leg, and it was just black and charred," he says.
Gant and his friend loaded into a car and took off for the local emergency room. He had suffered third-degree burns all down his leg and onto his foot, and two surgeries and five skin grafts later, he's still not 100 percent, he says.
The likely cause of the explosion: two lithium-ion batteries in the pocket of his Dickies—the same place he kept his lighter when he used to smoke actual cigarettes. But Gant, like 9 million other Americans, vapes. Now he speculates those batteries rubbed up against each other, causing them to ignite.
"After all this happened, I did some research, and apparently it's a huge no-no to keep batteries in your backpack or pocket, which I had no idea about," he says. There were "no warnings of any kind" printed on the batteries, Gant claims.
Still, Gant wasn't planning to sue until a lawyer reached out to him directly. "I figured, why not? If nothing else, it'll just raise awareness," he explains.
Exploding e-cigs have become rich targets for personal-injury attorneys looking to cash in big on settlements. Dozens of law firms now have web pages dedicated to exploding vape pen accidents. (Google "exploding vape," and the first result is an ad from NYC injury attorneys Cellino and Barnes.) It's easy to understand why.
In Idaho, a vape pen blew up in a man's mouth, shattering his face and forcing doctors to retrieve bits of plastic from his throat. A Colorado man suffered a broken neck while using his e-cig when it exploded violently, and a 19-year old in Tennessee burned his stomach and thigh when his vape exploded in his pocket. The FDA has identified 134 incidents of e-cig batteries overheating, catching on fire, or exploding in the US between 2009 and January 2016, enough to prompt them to host a public workshop to "gather information and stimulate discussion" this April in Maryland.
"What we're seeing a lot of is individuals with spare batteries that get overcharged. They're putting them in their pocket, maybe they have a little bit of change in there, and they explode," says Domenic Sanginiti, an attorney at the New Jersey law firm Stark & Stark. Sanginiti has filed seven e-cigarette cases, including Gant's, and is handling many more. "It's a lot more affordable for manufacturers to utilize cheap batteries," he says. There's A through D quality batteries, D being batteries that would be qualified to be used in the States. We're seeing A- and B-quality batteries that are sent overseas, repackaged by vape manufacturers, and are sold at a cheap price."Lithium-ion batteries are used in a wide array of consumer products—everything from power tools to laptops—and are usually pretty dependable. But as the Samsung Galaxy s7 debacle and several exploding hoverboards have proved, they're not all created equal.
The science at play here is pretty simple. An exposed lithium-ion battery can brush up against a piece of metal and short out. When that happens, there's a sudden blast of electrolytes that causes an extreme surge of heat and a subsequent explosion. This isn't exactly an unknown risk—some vape users buy plastic battery cases for storage. But cheaply made batteries have a significantly higher chance of being defective. And the industry is growing at an astounding clip—up to $32.11 billion in the United States alone by 2021 by some estimates.
"The real problem is with these 'me too' companies—companies that are under-financed, and launch a thing that's not very thought out that maybe has a second-rate battery," says Mike Papantonio, a Florida-based civil trial lawyer, talk-show host, and member of the National Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. "These companies are gonna wreak havoc in this area, because they're in, and then they're out. It's a methodology of externalizing all the risk, taking all the profits quickly, and moving out of the market quickly."
Sanginiti doesn't believe this will be a problem for long, but while it is, lawyers will lawyer.
"It's not a ten-year issue, it's more of a four- or five-year issue," he says. Eventually he believes federal regulation—which was just implemented last August—will kick in and weed out the bad actors. Until then, he and other lawyers will be there to collect settlements for clients who, like Gant, may not know where to turn.
There's certainly money to be made. In 2015, for instance, a woman named Jennifer Ries in California was awarded nearly $2 million after her vape pen exploded in a car charger.
"When you look at how they're handling the claims, they're using the Big Tobacco mold," Sanginiti says. "They just say, 'We'll just pay it. We'll fight it, and if we lose, we'll pay it.'" And lawyers like Sanginiti are happy to help assist.
Gant, meanwhile, is back at work, not yet fully recovered. He doesn't have any existential hopes riding on a settlement but is glad someone let him know it was a possibility. (Though Sanginiti reached out to Gant, he says most clients contact him, not the other way around.)
"There are still medical bills that need to be paid. I'm still an injured person. My foot took the brunt of it, and I still feel pain there," he says. "It's just like, I had no idea. I had no idea this could happen."
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