Crime & Courts

E-cigarette battery explodes in Derby man’s pants. 'It ignites like a bomb,' lawyer says

A Derby man is suing a Wichita vaping shop after he says a spare battery for his e-cigarette exploded in the front pocket of his pants.

Daniel Anderson suffered chemical and thermal burns to his left leg and hands caused by fire and heat that rolled out of the lithium ion battery, which he bought from Big E’s Vapor Shop, according to a lawsuit filed Feb. 6 in Sedgwick County District Court.

“It was like a flame thrower. It just ignited and was a big ball of fire,” said Wichita attorney Dustin DeVaughn, who is representing Anderson in the case.

Anderson was carrying the spare battery, his car keys and coins in his left front pocket of his pants the morning of Feb. 29, 2016, while he was at work. When the metal items touched, it caused a short to the outside of the battery.

The battery then “experienced thermal runaway causing an explosion,” the lawsuit says. Thermal runaway is internal heating and energy release that can cause a battery to overheat.

Anderson is suing Big E’s Vapor Shop, which sold him the battery, as well as the battery’s distributor, Oklahoma-based VapeUSA Corp., for more than $75,000 in damages. The lawsuit contends the companies knew or should have known that a design defective makes the type of battery Anderson bought dangerous for use in e-cigarettes.

They also failed to warn customers of the risks, it alleges.

“Nobody thinks twice about putting a battery in their pocket. You have an extra one, that’s the first place it’s going to go,” DeVaughn said.

Eldon Simmons, one of Big E’s Vapor Shop’s owners, said last week that the company had received a copy of the lawsuit. He declined to comment on it.

“Our company policy is to not comment on matters of pending litigation. However, we strongly support logical battery safety, and we do hand out battery safety information when customers buy batteries,” he said.

A message left with VapeUSA was not returned.

E-Cigarettes, or electronic cigarettes, are battery-powered devices that simulate traditional cigarette smoking using heated vapor. They’ve become a popular alternative to smoking since becoming available for sale in the U.S. in 2007. Although the failure rate of lithium-ion batteries is small, at least 195 fires and explosions and 133 injuries related to e-cigarettes happened in the U.S. between 2009 and 2016, according to a July 2017 U.S. Fire Administration report.

In at least 61 of those cases, the e-cigarette or a spare battery was in a person’s pocket at the time. Injuries were severe enough to require hospitalization for treatment of facial wounds, amputations and third-degree burns about 28 percent of the time, the report says.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products identified 274 cases of e-cigarettes overheating, catching fire or exploding between 2009 and June 2017. But the numbers are underreported, the center’s spokesman Michael Felberbaum said.

The FDA on its website suggests users keep loose batteries in a case in their pockets so they don’t come into contact with metal objects, such as coins and keys, and short circuit.

At least one other lawsuit with similar allegations – that an e-cigarette battery exploded in a man’s pocket – has been filed in Sedgwick County District Court against Big E’s Vapor Shop, records show. In that case, the shop countered that the man’s injuries “were caused by misuse” of the battery. It was dismissed in 2015.

In Anderson’s case, the cause of the thermal runaway “was an external short (on the battery) that resulted from contact with metallic objects” that were in his pocket. The battery Anderson bought “had no warnings or instructions concerning the risk of explosion or fire if the battery came into contact with conductive objects,” the lawsuit states.

“It ignites like a bomb,” DeVaughn said.

“My client had no idea he shouldn’t put it in his pocket. And there are many other consumers out there that have been very severely injured just like him.” There are safer alternatives that could be sold, he said.

Anderson, 33, was in a warehouse on Feb. 29, 2016, when his pocket carrying the battery “suddenly and without warning exploded and caught fire,” according to a settlement demand letter provided to The Eagle by DeVaughn.

“Daniel tried to put the fire out himself as he desperately tried to get away from the flames. Although Daniel was able to get the fire out he suffered severe burns” including second- and third-degree chemical and thermal burns that on his left leg that stretch from thigh to shin and second-degree burns to his fingertips and hands.

Some of the wounds required skin grafts to heal. He was off work for 16 weeks, lost $13,103.20 in wages and now has more than $109,000 in medical bills to date, the letter says.

“We had significant medical debt and lost wages that we still have not recovered from,” Anderson said in a written statement sent to The Eagle by his attorney.

“The burn to my leg has changed my life. I can no longer physically function the way I used to.”

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker