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Samsung Note 7 Lithium Battery Defects Continue Causing Fire

The Note 7 was supposed to be one of the most popular and sought after mobile phone releases of the year. Samsung’s Note 7 device is the latest iteration of the company’s tablet that boasts a stylus for easy and convenient note taking. The combination of a large display, expandable storage, and the device’s handwriting capabilities place it in a unique product class where no phone can match it on a feature-by-feature basis. As such, many predicted record sales for this device since its closest competitor, the Apple iPhone 7+, has yet to achieve feature parity. 

However, few people could have predicted the fire and explosion issues Samsung has faced since the Note 7 launched. While rechargeable, lithium-based batteries always present some risk of fire or explosion, most manufacturers are able to regularly manage this risk. However, Samsung has run into significant headwinds in bringing this battery fire issue under control as reports are now surfacing that fires and explosions are being reported in Note 7 units that were provided as replacements for known defective units and believed to be safe.

However, perhaps the most troubling revelation to emerge regarding this issue are allegations that Samsung has attempted to protect its brand and reputation at the expense of the safety of consumers.  Before delving into these allegations, let’s explore how the exploding battery issue reached this point.

Samsung Relied on Sister Company, Samsung SDI, to Produce Majority of Note 7 Batteries

As a multinational conglomerate, the organization of Samsung and its related companies is complex. Some of this complexity is evident in the fact that Samsung contracted with one of its subsidiaries to produce the vast majority of batteries originally used in its Note 7., Samsung SDI reportedly supplied up to 70 percent of batteries that found their way into early versions of the Note 7 smartphone. In fact, this was the first time Samsung SDI had provided the batteries for a majority of units for a flagship device launch.

We now know that batteries produced by SDI were the ones originally prone to catching on fire or exploding. Initially, batteries produced by other suppliers, like ATL, were believed to be safe and free from defects. Samsung has stated that it will stop using batteries produced by Samsung SDI for replacement devices. However, despite this decision to work with alternate battery suppliers, users of replacement devices are still reporting serious battery defects that can result in a fire or explosion.

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Reports of Battery Fires in at Least Five Replacement Devices

Unfortunately, consumers continue to report Note 7 devices that explode. These incidents include a number of replacement devices that were deemed “safe” by Samsung.

Perhaps the highest profile incident to occur involves a replacement device that nevertheless caught fire on a Southwest Airlines airplane. According to reports, the device was replaced by the cellular carrier on September 21, 2016. According to news reports, the plane was still at the gate when it began smoking in the user’s pocket. While all passengers were safely evacuated from the plane, the potential for a significantly more serious issue was present. For instance, if the device had malfunctioned when the plane was already in the air, it is possible that panic among the passengers or other factors could have caused the situation to escalate. In any case, it is probably an understatement to say that, the potential combination of fire and a pressurized cabin where highly flammable oxygen is being piped in could result in a catastrophic loss of life.

Additional incidents have been reported since the replacement Note 7 battery fire on the airplane. These incidents include:

  • A new Note 7 phone battery caught fire while a Tennessee couple were sleeping. According to the owner of the phone, it was a replacement device that was not charging or in use at the time of the incident. The individual was hospitalized due to acute bronchitis apparently due to smoke inhalation.
  • A Minnesota teenager and her father reported that the replacement Note 7 device caught on fire while the teen was holding the device. She reports a burn to her thumb that felt like pins and needles but more intense. She states that she dropped the device as soon as she noticed there was a problem and a principal was able to kick the device out of the building before the fire or smoke could spread.
  • A user reported that his replacement Note 7 device caught fire at a South Korean baseball stadium.
  • An individual in Taiwan reported that her replacement Note 7 caught fire while in her pocket.

A number of additional incidents have also been reported. Reports of fires include both original and replacement Note 7 devices. While lithium battery fires in any device are concerning, the continued problems in the replacement units with supposedly “safe” batteries is especially troubling.

User Alleges that Samsung Representatives Tried to Bury Battery Glitch in Replacement Phone

One of the more troubling revelations relating to fires in replacement devices is the allegation that certain Samsung representatives may be more concerned with damage control and brand protection than user safety. The individual who reported the Note 7 battery fire in Tennessee said that he initially believed that Samsung was doing everything in its power to address and correct the issue he faced. However, he states that he now believes that Samsung was not acting in good faith due to a text message he claims was inadvertently sent to him by a Samsung representative. The message stated:

Just now got this. I can try and slow him down if we think it will matter, or we just let him do what he keeps threatening to do and see if he does it.

It appears that Samsung’s representatives learned of this phone fire on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. However, despite having knowledge that at least three replacement Note 7 devices that Samsung had characterized as “safe” had already experienced battery failures, the company did not warn consumers. If accurate, this is particularly shocking behavior in light of the issue and potential risks. For instance, lithium battery fires can conceivably spread throughout a home or business resulting in the death or serious injury of the building occupants.

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Others Stop Sales of the Note 7

In response to these new reports of replacement units apparently also containing battery defects, a number of retailers and phone carriers have stopped sales of all new Note 7 devices. On Sunday, October 9, 2016, T-Mobile announced that it would stop selling all Note 7 devices and halt exchanges for new “safe” Note 7 devices. However, the phone carrier would still permit users to exchange their Note 7 for different, alternative devices. On the same day, AT&T announced a similar measure that would also suspend consumer purchases and exchanges of Note 7 devices. However, like T-Mobile, AT&T would still allow users to trade-in their Note 7 for a different smartphone model produced by Samsung or a different manufacturer.

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Samsung Announces Production Halt oF Note 7 PHablet

Following the news that two major carriers and dropped the Note 7 unit, Samsung announced on Monday, October 10, 2016, that it would temporarily suspend production of these units. Samsung initially stated that it is currently “adjusting shipment volumes” in response to the concerns and issues created by the battery defect situation. Finally, on the evening of Monday, October 10, 2016, Samsung announced that it was permanently halting production of the Note 7.

However, Samsung’s decision to halt product for a time does little to address the fact that hundreds of thousands or even millions of potentially defective devices have already been sold in markets across the globe. Each of these devices has the potential to catch fire or explode while in the hand – or in the pocket – of its owner. Essentially this means that the risks presented by these defective batteries will likely be present for years.

While cell phones are replaced more frequently than certain durable consumer goods like cars and trucks, most consumers will use a smartphone for a minimum of two to three years before seeking a replacement. In the meanwhile, due to how lithium batteries to function, continued wear and tear on these defective batteries only increase the likelihood of a thermal runaway event that causes a battery fire or explosion. Consumers are encouraged to exchange their original or replacement Note 7 device for an alternate smartphone device produced by Samsung or another manufacturer.

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