If an E-Cigarette Explodes, Who is Responsible?

There can be many parties who may be to blame for an accident. When it comes to a malfunctioning e-cigarette that catches fire or explodes, those who may face legal responsibility include the seller, the product’s distributor and manufacturer. Each situation is unique, and if the product is misused by the consumer or directions and warnings are ignored, he or she may also be partially responsible.

E-cigarettes are powered by small lithium ion batteries. This is the same type of battery found in laptops, smartphones and electric cars. They pack about twice as much energy as traditional alkaline or NiCad rechargeable batteries. They’re used to turn liquid nicotine into a mist which is inhaled by the user. E-cigarettes explode because of problems with the battery.

Often it’s a battery manufacturing defect, according to Consumer Reports. A lithium ion battery has three main components:

  • A positively charged cathode made of metal oxide,
  • A negatively charged anode made of graphite, and,
  • A liquid electrolyte, a solvent containing lithium salts which allows the electric charge to flow between the two poles of the battery.

The cathode and the anode are kept apart by a thin, plastic separator. As time goes on, manufacturers try to pack more power into smaller batteries, so this separator is often pushed to its limit. If it goes beyond that limit, an explosion can happen. The separator is very delicate and can fail if it’s not manufactured correctly, not put in the battery properly or is damaged during shipment or use.

If the separator breaches, a short circuit happens, causing what’s known as thermal runaway, one of the major causes of battery fires. The chemicals inside the battery heat up, damaging the separator. The battery could reach temperatures of more than 1,000° F. When this happens, electrolytes can ignite or even explode when exposed to the air.

Other explanations for failing batteries and explosions, according to Wired, include:

  • These e-cigarette batteries are designed to be as small and light as possible, which can compromise safety.
  • The battery, over time, could be dropped and handled roughly. Long-term wear and tear can damage the battery.
  • The charger that comes with the e-cigarette, or a different one used by the consumer, may not be safely charging the battery. Wires may not be insulated enough, and there may be little or no power-management features.
  • Manufacturing these batteries is a very competitive industry. If it can be made cheaper, saving a few pennies per battery, it may boost sales or profits. Materials may be substandard, insulation insufficient and quality control may not be a priority in order to cut costs.

Laws concerning seeking compensation for injuries caused by a defective e-cigarette vary from state to state. Generally, someone injured by an exploding e-cigarette, or one whose property was damaged by one, may be able to sue the product’s seller, distributor and manufacturer under an area of law known as product liability, which has three parts to it.

Breach of Warranty

A warranty is a promise, claim, or representation about the quality or performance of a product. The law presumes a seller will always provide a warranty for the product being sold and it should meet the obligation created by the warranty. Warranties can be express or implied.

An express warranty can be an affirmation of fact by the seller, be created by samples shown to the buyer, or by advertising or marketing claims. An implied warranty is presumed to exist unless the buyer clearly disclaims it in writing as a part of the sales agreement. There are implied warranties of merchantability (it’s fit for the ordinary purposes it’s designed to do) and implied warranties of fitness for a particular purpose.


The plaintiff needs to show the defendant owed him a legal duty of care, that the legal duty was breached, that breach was the legal and factual cause of the accident that caused the injury, and that harm was suffered which can be compensated under the law.

The duty to exercise ordinary care and supply a safe and non-defective e-cigarette applies to the manufacturer, the distributor handling it and the retailer who should exercise greater care in offering these products for sale.

Negligence can happen at any point during the design, manufacturing, advertising and sale of the e-cigarette. It must be designed so it’s safe when used as intended.  It needs to be inspected and tested at appropriate stages in the manufacturing, distribution and sales process. It must be made from safe,  non-defective materials and assembled with appropriate care. The container or packaging needs to be  adequate and contain appropriate warnings and directions.

Strict Liability

Strict product liability doesn’t consider fault for causing an injury. An injured plaintiff need prove   only that the product was defective and the product defect caused the injury. The focus is on the product, not the actions of the manufacturer, distributor or seller, because it doesn’t matter what precautions were or weren’t taken. If the product was defective and caused the injury, the manufacturer, distributor and seller may be found liable. These defects can be in the design, manufacture or failure to warn end users of possible dangers.

Based on the facts and laws of the jurisdiction, defendants could have any number of possible defenses, including that the plaintiff waited too long to file legal claims (statute of limitations), he or she was at least a partial cause of the accident, the plaintiff failed to do enough to limit the harm done, or the negligence of some other party actually caused the problem.

If you suffered an injury due to an exploding e-cigarette, you need only look to those in the chain of companies that brought it to you. Depending on the facts and applicable law it may be easy or difficult to establish liability, but it most cases it’s something that can be done.