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Who is liable when a lithium ion battery explodes?

Lithium-ion batteries are tiny miracles of science—unlike expensive disposable batteries, lithium-ion batteries are virtually endlessly rechargeable. They're also lightweight and fairly powerful. Unfortunately, they also have a nasty habit of catching fire when they're overcharged or short circuit.

This can be a significant problem because lithium-ion batteries are in virtually everything these days, including cellphones, laptops, e-readers, tablets and e-cigarettes, just to name a few. When they made the news in 2015 for setting fire to a number of hoverboards, a lot of well-known brands put the blame on shoddy manufacturing by unknown foreign companies. Foreign manufacturers without a lot of quality controls in place emerged overnight and were putting out cheaper versions of the name-brand products (and batteries) as fast as possible to cash in on the hoverboard craze while it was still trendy.

However, well-known companies have also had problems with their batteries. For example, Samsung issued a massive recall in 2016 of its Galaxy Note 7 after a number of them exploded or set fire to themselves due to battery malfunctions.

What causes some of lithium-ion batteries to ignite while others operate safely for years?

In general, top-quality battery manufacturers are simply more conscious of the potential for an internal short circuit, so they build safety features into their product. Current-interruption devices and pressure relief vents are common safety devices in lithium-ion batteries. Smart manufacturers also pay attention to the strength of the divider between the cathode and anode parts of the battery. A divider that's too thin can be breached by the electrical current, creating what is called a thermal runaway, which leads to explosions and fires.

Who is liable when an explosion or fire happens because of a faulty lithium-ion battery?

Assigning liability for a dangerous and defective battery isn't an easy task. Anyone in the supply chain, from the manufacturer of the battery to the manufacturer of the product that used it could bear some responsibility. Distributors and merchants may also share part of the blame. If you used an aftermarket battery to replace the original battery for some reason, don't assume that you don't have a case without talking to an attorney first. The product manufacturer might not have adequately warned consumers about the dangers associated with aftermarket replacement batteries, and the company that sold you the aftermarket battery may also be partially liable.

Source: Battery University, "Lithium-ion Safety Concerns," accessed Dec. 09, 2016

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