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Man injured by e-cigarette ‘pipe bomb’ gets $2.3M in St. Charles County case

CHARLES — A jury here has awarded a Dardenne Prairie man $2.3 million after an electronic cigarette battery exploded in his mouth, broke his teeth, fractured his jaw and burned his hand.

Attorneys for Bryan Durham argued during a four-day trial last week that e-cigarette distributor Lightfire Holdings LLC handed customers a “tiny pipe bomb” with a powerful, unprotected lithium-ion battery and did not warn them of the potential dangers.

“It’s like they hand you a brick of C-4 and they tell you it’s Play-Doh,” said Sara Craig, an attorney for Durham. “You have no comprehension that what you’re handling is that volatile and has that much potential energy stored inside it.”

An attorney for Florida-based Lightfire Holdings did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the company argued in filings it should not be held liable for Durham’s injuries.

Electronic cigarettes first came on the market in 2007 and were billed as a safer, cleaner alternative to cigarettes. Sales rose dramatically from 2008 to 2012, from roughly $20 million to $2.5 billion, and experts predict the business will soon surpass the tobacco industry altogether, according to Durham’s suit.

The devices work by using a battery-powered heating element to vaporize a liquid contained in a tank, which allows the smoker to inhale vapor and nicotine. Many contain powerful, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are also found in cellphones, laptops, electric cars, power tools and electronic bicycles.

When such batteries overheat, it causes a phenomenon called “thermal runaway,” which can lead to explosions, fires or serious injury. In e-cigarettes, Durham’s attorneys said, the phenomenon can cause the device’s battery to shoot out like a bullet.

Most devices that use lithium-ion batteries have protections and safeguards that stop such a problem, but that was not the case when Durham purchased a Tobeco Super Tank Mini e-cigarette at a St. Louis-area vape shop upon the recommendation of an employee, according to his suit.

Durham was sitting on his couch in 2017 when the device exploded, causing injuries throughout his body, according to the suit.

He wrapped his arm in a towel and drove himself to the emergency room in O’Fallon, Missouri, where he passed out. He was then taken to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where he had oral and hand surgery, as well as stitches in his arm. He has permanent scars and nerve damage.

Craig, of the firm Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise, said it was relatively common practice for sellers to distribute devices with no safeguards, and she presented experts who testified about the danger of the devices and the responsibility of companies to warn consumers about the risks, however rare.

Federal regulators have since required safeguards in vapes, but Craig said it shouldn’t have taken injuries for manufacturers to start making changes.

The St. Charles County jury issued the verdict last Friday of $352,000 in compensatory damages plus $2 million in punitive damages. Craig said she believed jurors wanted to make a statement.

“They wanted to send a message to the e-cigarette industry and say that you’re not going to play fast and loose, you’re not going to consider harm to consumers as just another cost of doing business,” she said.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch September 14, 2023

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