Every year there is one holiday gift that tops the lists of boys and girls throughout the nation. In light of the still somewhat recent 30th anniversary of the back to the Future movie franchise, perhaps it is appropriate that the hover board is one expected to be one of the top gifts for the 2015 giving season. While parents who may not have yet heard about this gift may begin to worry about children soaring through the air, the truth is that these devices are more similar to the popular Segway device and other self-propelled, self-balancing, earth-bound scooters.
However, there is a particular risk presented by some these “hoverboards.” That is, these hoverboards and gyro boards have shown a surprisingly unwelcome propensity to catch fire or to explode. While the risk of a child suffering an injury due to falling off one of these devices is troublesome enough, the idea that these devices could ignite a blazing inferno that destroys an entire home and potentially everything and everyone in them is particularly shocking. Unfortunately, it appears that the fire risk is exacerbated by a number of factors inherent in the devices and the lithium ion batteries that are contained within.
Reports of Fires Caused by Hoverboards
Unfortunately reports of hoverboards that spontaneously catch on fire have been reported across the United States. In one incident at a Washington mall that was caught on video, one can clearly see flames shoot out of a small device on the ground. The flames are only extinguished after an individual used a fire extinguisher. One witness claimed that even after being extinguished, the battery then reignited.
Other incidents have occurred in family homes. In one incident a hoverboard caught fire while charging in the living room of a Westchester, NY home. In a separate incident in Louisiana, a home was destroyed after the board caught fire during charging. The home owner stated that “It was like fireworks … the middle part of the board, just ‘poof.'” She stated that the home was ablaze within minutes due to the intensity of the lithium-ion battery fire. Additional reports of hoverboards that have caught on fire have also come from a separate incident in Louisiana and there are reports of a similar fire in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
While consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the government agency responsible for regulating consumer products, has received reports of injuries due to these toys, the injuries have not been related to the fire risk. Rather, the reports received to date are focused on injuries sustained due to falls from the device.
Problems Inherent in Self-Propelled Scooters & Hoverboards
Hoverboards are designed to be a toy for teens and children. As such, the device should be expected to endure its share of abuse and use by the child in an athletic and active manner. Unfortunately, it is not apparent that all scooters are being produced with the same level of care and quality. Unfortunately, a similar conclusion can also be drawn about the quality of components including the lithium-ion battery that is installed in these toys.
Now consider the typical usage of lithium batteries. They are likely to be housed within a device that is treated with care. In fact, many people treat their smart phone and laptop with extreme care and cringe if the device is bumped or jostled. Contrast this to the to extreme bumps experienced while traveling down uneven pavement on a hoverboard or the shock of a child jumping on and off of the device housing the battery. Clearly, hoverboards and the components that they consist of are subjected to an inordinate amount of abuse.
Problems with Li-On Batteries that Can Lead to Fire or Explosion
The amount of abused experienced by hoverboards when coupled with the inherent characteristics of a lithium battery make it clear that batteries that are exposed to rough treatment and greater amounts of abuse present a higher risk of failure.
Consider that the physical structure of a lithium-ion battery consists of an anode and a cathode. Through these terminals is where the power flows from a battery. There terminals are separated by a small, typically plastic, separator. The role of this separator is to ensure that the anode and the cathode never make contact. Unfortunately, these separators may not always be manufactured properly. In other instances the separator can be damaged by repeated impacts and abuse experienced by the device and battery. When the separator fails and the anode and cathode connect, a short circuit occurs. This short may render the unit inoperable or result in a fire or explosion. Batteries that are cheaply made or otherwise intended to offer a “good value” to consumers are probably more likely to suffer this potential consequence. Since many holiday shoppers and gift givers may be put-off by name-brand prices for hoverboards starting around $500 or $600, many consumers might look to more affordable options.
Apart from the potential risk presented by abuse to a lithium-ion battery, other inherent aspects of the product also presents a fire and explosion risk. Consider that these batteries are designed to hold concentrated amounts of energy in small spaces. While there are overcharge protection circuits built-in to many devices, these devices are not foolproof. Overcharge can still occur and when overcharge occurs, the batter can catch fire or explode.
The risk of overcharging is most pronounced when the consumer uses a third-party USB or other charger that may provide voltage greater than the battery is designed to receive. Since the USB standard has gone through multiple iterations with each successive standard capable of supplying increasing current, this risk is more pronounced than one might think. In the case of a severe overcharge, all lithium batteries will fail – even high-quality ones. Similarly, a user who excessively discharges the lithium battery and leaves it at 0% charge for some amount of time may damage the circuits in the battery and increase the risk of malfunction. Likewise, excessive heat – whether ambient or produced by the charging battery – can also increase the likelihood of a catastrophic failure.
Past Reports of Fires and Explosions due to Lithium Batteries
Reports of fires in hoverboards is simply the latest concern presented by the potential volatility of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries were first implicated in a major fire risk and explosion concern back in 2006 and 2007 when Dell recalled 4.1 million laptop batteries and Apple recalled 1.8 million. Despite this risk presented nearly 10 years ago, lithium ion batteries have found their way into a broad array of consumer products including the cell phone.
Like all devices containing batteries of this type, cell phones are also prone to fires and explosions. In one particularly widely reported incident, a girl’s Samsung Galaxy S 4 allegedly caught fire while she was sleeping. The family believes that the device overheated perhaps due to becoming trapped under the pillow. The family contacted a local Fox affiliate for help after seeing a similar story about swelling lithium-ion batteries in baby monitors.
Finally, in recent weeks we have written about the fires and injuries caused by exploding batteries in electronic cigarettes, e-hookahs, and other portable vaporization devices. Problems with these devices can have particularly severe effects since the explosion often occurs close to the user’s face. In some instances, injury victims of defective lithium batteries in these devices have suffered damage to the mouth, teeth and tongue.
While lithium batteries are extremely useful in a broad array of product lines and product types, additional precautions must be taken to minimize the fire and explosion risk in novel applications of the technology. Consider that auto manufacturers like Tesla include active cooling systems to ensure that batteries operate within a safe range of temperatures. Furthermore, these vehicles contain protection for the batteries that reduces the impacts of bumps and jostles. Manufacturers who are placing these batteries into novel devices like hoverboards and e-cigarettes must also do more to protect against the known risks of lithium ion batteries.
Injured by a Lithium Ion Battery in a Hoverboard or Other Device?
If you or a loved one have suffered a severe injury due to a fire or explosion in the lithium-ion battery installed into your hoverboard or gyroboard the experienced personal injury and product liability attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm may be able to fight for you. For more than three decades our experienced and strategic attorneys have fought for injured Pennsylvanians and Philadelphians. To schedule a free and confidential initial personal injury consultation call us at (215) 246-9000 today or contact us online.