It sounds familiar. A product one wouldn’t think of as a hazard suddenly becomes one. In 1992, it was Stella Liebeck and a scalding cup of McDonald’s coffee, a case that still gets tempers boiling, regardless of the fact that the original jury award was reduced. This year, we have Erik Johnson, whose iPhone exploded in his pants pocket. He suffered second- and third-degree burns and spent 10 days in the hospital.
Johnson claims he was bending over to get his keys, heard a pop, saw some smoke and then felt excruciating pain. “I was literally jumping up and down trying to get the phone out of my pocket, but I had dress pants on. I think the phone melted my pockets shut so I couldn’t get into it and I had to rip my pants off,” Johnson said.
Apple says it is investigating this bizarre occurrence, despite assertions from Johnson’s lawyer that the company isn’t responding to his phone calls or letters. Is it so bizarre, though? There have been allegations of exploding iPhones as far back as 2009, according to the BBC. Apple’s statement then didn’t seem to show a great deal of concern. “To date, there are no confirmed battery overheating incidents for iPhone 3GS and the number of reports we are investigating is in the single digits.”
There is a marked difference between reports in the single digits and the over 700 reported cases of burns caused by coffee in that case. However, it seems to me that there is still a duty owed by Apple, despite a lower rate of incidents, to its customers to, well, not set them on fire. McDonald’s cavalier attitude toward its customers’ injuries was part of the reason it lost the case.
Is it a design defect or a failure to warn issue? Certainly, these hot cells could find a place in a product liability suit, although Johnson has filed none as of this writing. The major question seems to be whether the lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery is the cause or if it’s consumer negligence.
One source, the CEO of Angelbeat, a technology seminar provider, says that “damage to a phone’s circuit board or the use of third-party charging devices can cause the battery to overheat and spew hot lithium – but this rarely happens.” This almost makes it sound as though consumer negligence is the culprit.
However, there are other considerations. If Li-Ion batteries are punctured or bent, they may burn. While every Li-Ion battery bears the warning about bending, the battery is inside the phone. A search of safety instructions for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 resulted in pamphlets that warned only that the batteries should only be replace by Apple-certified repair techs and with Apple-approved replacements. Nothing was found related to possible fires or their causes.
It’s much more conceivable that using a third-party charger would cause the problem rather than putting your iPhone in your back pocket and sitting on it. The point though, is that neither issue seems to appear in a noticeable warning from Apple in their safety guides.
If Johnson files suit, it will be for a jury to decide the issue. Frankly, the cost of printing new safety pamphlets and acknowledging the risk posed by Li-Ion batteries is far less than defending (or, more likely, settling) a suit.