Although the lithium batteries have a failure rate of less than one in a million, Pope says it’s hard to gauge how many people have suffered injuries and how many people have even died due to manufacture defects. “When these batteries explode and without expertise on the ground, incidents could be written off as a house fire,” he explains. “Working with our experts, from engineers to former fire commissioners, we go to great lengths investigating and identifying the cause and origin of fires. And through x-ray and CT scans we can see a defect within the battery.”
Defective Lithium-battery Medical Device
Pope is typically contacted by a family member who has (or had) a defective device. “Oftentimes we enter the home or site after the fire department and see where the battery was located--the origin of the fire,” he explains. In one incident, Pope says the fire department determined that his client’s medical device was the cause of the fire. That medical device is a left ventricular assisted devices (LVAD). According to the Cleveland Clinic, some people use this device while waiting for a heart transplant, saying an LVAD can give you an improved quality of life, but it’s not a cure. However, as more people are getting these devices than ever before because of improved survival rates with device use, adverse events are on the rise.
In 2015 Thoratec, the manufacturer of the HeartMate II left ventricular assist device (LVAD) warned hospitals that it had led to two deaths and one serious injury. According to MedPage Today, the backup battery for the system controller has a 36-month expiration date, with an alarm automatically set for noon on the first day of the month of expiration. Although the system will continue to function normally after the alarm, "some of these patients who received the advisory alarm attempted to switch from their primary to backup System Controller, and of those, three were unable to connect their pump to their backup System Controller in a timely manner, resulting in two patient deaths and one serious injury.” Incredibly, the HeartMate II LVAD had a recall one year earlier. In 2014 at least four patients died and five lost consciousness or had other symptoms of hypoperfusion due to a similar issue. And in 2012 the device faced a Class 1 recall for kinks in the outflow tract.
Each year, more than 2,500 people with heart failure in the U.S. receive a left ventricular assist device and for some of those people, an LVAD will support the heart’s function for the rest of their life. But the Cleveland Clinic lists LVAD device malfunction as a risk or complications after a left ventricular assist device procedure.
Why lithium-ion batteries explode
Lithium-ion batteries can explode or catch fire due to a phenomenon called thermal runaway. Thermal runaway is a chain reaction that occurs when the battery experiences a rapid increase in temperature, leading to the release of energy and potentially causing a catastrophic failure. Li-ion batteries can overheat from being damaged or punctured, being overcharged, or being exposed to high temperatures or direct sunlight. Additionally, the electrolyte liquid inside the battery is flammable. If the battery is damaged, the liquid can leak out and come into contact with oxygen in the air, potentially igniting and causing a fire or explosion.
According to Pope McGlamry law firm’s website, the most egregious cause of the Li-ion battery explosions is manufacturer defects. Cheap materials and poor-quality assurance can introduce impurities or foreign particles inside the battery, which can create short circuits and increase the likelihood of thermal runaway. “Remember self-combustion? These incidents are similar: a battery that can heat up and burst in flames for no external reason,” says Pope.
“We have a client whose family member’s house caught on fire – he died from toxic smoke inhalation,” says Pope. “He was asleep when the battery had thermal runaway – it causes extremely toxic smoke and there’s only a small window of time for people to help themselves. His body was not burned.” In another of Pope’s cases, thermal runaway occurred in the backup battery inside the controller. “It caught the bed on fire, burnt the man and killed his young son from smoke inhalation when he came into his father’s bedroom.”
Other Incidents involving lithium-ion battery fires.
- 2016: Samsung recalled millions of Galaxy Note 7 smartphones due to reports of battery fires. It was banned from all U.S. flights due to the device being deemed a fire hazard.
- 2018: A Tesla Model S caught fire in California after a crash, and a year later, a Tesla Model 3 caught fire in a parking lot in Shanghai.
- 2018: HP Recalled over 50,000 Batteries for Notebook Computers and Mobile Workstations Due to Fire and Burn Hazards
- 2022: the New York City Fire Department responded to more than 200 e-scooter and e-bike fires, which resulted in six fatalities.
- February 2023: Abbott recalled over 4 million of its Flash Glucose Monitoring Systems, all of which use lithium-ion batteries FreeStyle Libre, Libre 14 day, and Libre 2 Flash Glucose Management Systems’ reader devices. The Class 1 recall was initiated because the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries may get extremely hot, spark, or catch on fire if not properly stored, charged, or used with its Abbott provided USB cable and power adapter.
- March 2023: Lithium-ion batteries were thought to cause a massive fire in New York City. CNN reported that at least seven people have been injured in a five-alarm fire in the Bronx which required the attention of 200 firefighters. Officials believe the incident stemmed from a lithium-ion battery of a scooter found on the roof of an apartment building.