Manufacturer Liability When Batteries Fail

You are minding your own business when one of your electronic devices stops working. Upon closer inspection, you realize the problem is the batteries. You also discover that failing batteries have actually damaged your device. What do you do now? That depends on the situation. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the device manufacturer to step up.

With a device like a smartphone, where the battery is hard-wired to the chassis, liability for the battery and its function lies squarely with the manufacturer. But things are different with devices that use replaceable batteries. Liability is generally not on the manufacturer because it cannot control which batteries a customer uses.

The Exploding Apple Headphones

A good case to illustrate the liability issue comes by way of a pair of Apple headphones that exploded back in 2017. Unfortunately, the owner of the headphones was wearing them at the time and sustained significant burns to her face, neck, and hands.

Apparently, the woman was on a flight from Beijing, China to Melbourne, Australia and was listening to music with her battery-powered Apple headphones. About two hours into the flight, the headphones exploded. She was able to get them off of her head and throw them onto the floor.

Apple investigated the issue and determined that fault lied squarely with the batteries. Because they did not sell the headphones with batteries included, they claim they were not responsible for the accident. Apple blamed the third-party battery maker.

As for the consumer, she believes Apple is at fault – at least to the extent that they did not recommend any particular type of battery for that device. She believes they should have. In the end, the law agrees with Apple. Unless the headphones themselves malfunctioned, Apple is not liable for the accident.

Overheated Batteries Exploded

A government investigation determined that the batteries likely overheated inside the headphones. When they did, they exploded and burst into flames. Though this sort of thing is rare, it is always possible when you are dealing with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Pale Blue Earth, a Salt Lake City company selling a revolutionary USB rechargeable battery, says that lithium-ion technology is subject to overheating. This is the very reason lithium-ion batteries being shipped across the country have to be packaged in a specific way. They cannot be allowed to short-circuit. They also cannot be exposed to high heat.

The headphone accident occurred on a climate-controlled airplane. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the batteries were exposed to high heat. That leaves short-circuiting as the most reasonable culprit. Short-circuiting could have been caused by a malfunctioning device or a poorly manufactured battery.

A Matter of Thermal Runaway

Chemistry provides a logical explanation of what happened with the Apple headphones. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are supposed to be built with internal circuitry to prevent overheating. If that circuitry malfunctions, an otherwise working battery can start to generate excess heat.

The more heat generated, the more the internal process that produces electricity is encouraged to continue. This generates even more heat. What you end up with is an ongoing cycle known as thermal runaway. Most instances of thermal runaway end in battery failure.

Thankfully, instances of exploding lithium-ion batteries are rare in comparison to the total volume of batteries in use around the world. Nonetheless, they can overheat and fail. We owe it to ourselves and our families be incredibly careful about how we use lithium-ion batteries. They should always be used in accordance with manufacturer instructions. That’s the best way to prevent the types of catastrophic battery failures that make the news.

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