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Who’s liable for e-cigarette injury?

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E-cigarettes need to vaporize nicotine at very high temperatures, sometimes resulting in overheating and combustion. Anyone from the manufacture to the distributer may be liable for an injury from an e-cig. (Frank Franklin II/2014 AP)

This week’s question comes from Jorge in Oakland, who writes:

Q. My college-age son came home from college for the Thanksgiving Holiday and went out with a bunch of friends. He isn’t a smoker, but one of the boys he was with had an electronic cigarette and he wanted to try it. He has never used one before. This was a brand new device that the friend had just purchased. When my son attempted to use the cigarette, it became a ball of fire and severely burned his face. My son is no longer on our insurance, and is not working. We are now facing very large medical expenses, and no one can tell us if his face will completely heal. What are our rights, and how is such a dangerous thing allowed on the market?

A. I’m sorry to hear about your son, I hope that he recovers soon.

Electronic cigarettes have become very popular in recent years after public establishments starting banning smoking in more and more areas to protect the public. An e-cigarette or electronic cigarette is a battery-powered vaporizer. Its purpose is to try to mimic the feeling of smoking, without actually burning tobacco. The draw is that by not burning tobacco, this form of smoking is safer than traditional cigarettes.

E-cigarettes come in different forms, some looking like a traditional cigarette and others looking more like a pipe. The consumer smokes the device by pressing a button. Instead of inhaling the smoke generated by a cigarette, the user breathes in a mixture of e-liquid, which normally includes propylene glycol, glycerin, nicotine and some form of flavoring.

Like many new devices on the market, e-cigarettes have resulted in some serious injuries to consumers, due to defects in design of the product and malfunctions. The main parts of an e-cigarette are the mouthpiece, a tank, a heating element, a microprocessor and a battery. The liquid within the e-cigarette, to vaporize, requires a very high temperature (roughly 100-200 degrees). What has happened to some users, is the lithium battery used in the e-cigarette overheats or the liquid vapor leaks into the battery chamber. Both of these instances can result in the combustion of the e-cigarette and serious injuries. Without seeing the e-cigarette and hearing what occurred first hand from your son, it is hard to know whether one of these circumstances occurred.

The term “product liability” is used in law, to define the tort that occurs when someone is injured by a product. A product can be defective in its design, manufacturing or the warning labels given on the product. The parties that can be found liable are the manufacturer of the product, the manufacturer of the component parts, the assembler, the wholesaler and/or the product retailer. Essentially, anyone in the “stream of commerce” in getting this product made and delivered to you can be responsible for losses.

In this case, your son will want to maintain custody of the device, obtain his medical bills and medical records and speak with an attorney that handles product liability matters. He or she can research similar cases against the seller and manufacturer and also help start a claim for
your son.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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