Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and Products Liability Law

Michael GrossmanSeptember 12, 2016 5 minutes

It was a recall that sort of flew under the radar, until the Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement urging Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices not to power up the devices in-flight, due to concerns about the batteries catching fire without warning. Since that time, the government issued a formal recall and existing rules prohibit carrying recalled items on to airplanes. As lithium ion batteries cannot be checked in luggage, this effectively bans these cell phones from airplanes.

The recall affects the 2.5 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cell phones that have already been sold around the world. Apparently, they use a sub-standard battery that is subject to thermal run-away, an issue with lithium ion batteries over the years where a fault in the device causes temperatures to spiral out of control until the battery ignites at hundreds of degrees, in a quick, devastating flash-fire.

How Big Is the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Problem?

In essence, Samsung has put 2.5 million little flaming bombs into circulation. While other devices such as hover-boards, electric cigarettes, and laptop computers have all had issues with defective lithium ion batteries over the years, this problem in a cell phone is particularly dangerous. If you stop and think about where you keep your cell phone, it is generally in a pocket, in your hands, or near your head. This means that when these devices suffer thermal run-away and ignite, they are almost always in proximity to a vulnerable part of a person.

At this time, it is reported that there have been at least 35 battery failures in these phones. Some experts predict that we could likely see as many as 2,500 failures if the recalled devices are not replaced in a timely manner. The latest injury linked to these devices is a 6-year-old boy in Brooklyn, New York, who was using the phone when it suddenly burst into flames. The boy suffered serious burn injuries and was rushed to the hospital. The story of the Brooklyn boy illustrates that unlike most of those other devices, the way we use cell phones greatly increases potential injuries and their severity.

The injuries that one could expect from these phones are similar to the instances where electric cigarettes exploded in someone's pocket. In fact, Grossman Law Offices has experience with just this kind of injury. We took on a case where young many who suffered third-degree burns when his device suffered thermal run-away and exploded inside his pants pocket. While the device may have been different, the source, defective lithium ion batteries, remains the same.

The truly shocking part of these stories is that lithium ion battery technology is not a new technology. It has been employed extensively in devices since the turn of the century. The dangers of the technology are well known and have been mitigated in well-manufactured batteries. The failure rate for quality batters is usually in the one in tens of millions of batteries. To have 35 failures (and rising) in a mere 2.5 million batteries indicates that these batteries were poorly constructed, most likely using substandard materials.

While we understand the need for any business to keep costs down in order to save money, Samsung's poor sourcing for these batteries is tough to fathom. The word has been out about poor quality lithium ion batteries for almost a decade. Numerous articles, aimed at the general public have warned against purchasing low quality lithium ion batteries. If the general public is aware of the issue, it stands to reason that a technological innovator, like Samsung, with an extensive history of a manufacturing products would know better than to try and cut corners with these batteries.

In short, it is difficult to envision an adequate explanation for how these inferior batteries made their way into an $800 device, made by a reputable company like Samsung, short of reckless cost-cutting, or incompetent oversight.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and Products Liability Law

The good news for those who have been injured by the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is that the law affords them remedies against the manufacturer. This specific area of the law is known as products liability.

Of course, people are not eligible for compensation just because they were injured, instead the manufacturer must have engaged in some conduct that is actionable. In this particular instance, the action stems from a breach of implied warranty. Most people are familiar with the express warranties that come on little pieces of folded paper in the packaging of products. These papers make specific guarantees about the suitability of the product. In essence, they're promises from the manufacturer regarding a particular product.

While not obvious to most consumers, those aren't the only promises that a manufacturer makes to a consumer. That is where implied warranties come in. Unless you're buying explosives, part of the implied warranty for most products is that they're not going to catch fire or explode. The subset of this warranty is what is known as fitness for purpose. Unlike many areas of the law, fitness for purpose is intuitive and commonsensical. One doesn't need a J.D. to know that in order to be a proper cell phone, doing cell phone-y things, means that it shouldn't explode. The fact that is does renders it unfit for its purpose.

I'll admit that its informed speculation, but having covered past lithium ion battery issues, I would be shocked if it doesn't turn out that the source of this issues is poor sourcing from a manufacturer using inferior materials and poor manufacturing techniques. These batteries can cost a fraction of a properly manufactured lithium ion battery, but at the cost of astronomically higher failure rates.

The opacity in the lithium ion battery industry means that unless manufacturers are very diligent about where they source their batteries, situations like this can occur. Quite honestly, an experienced manufacturer like Samsung should be well aware of this issue and really doesn't have an excuse for being caught up in a recall like this. To put it more bluntly, if someone whose background is in the law can research the issue well enough to know about the dangers of substandard lithium ion batteries, the issue should be front and center for the engineers of smart phones.

I'm not big on piling on companies and regurgitating tired cliches about companies "putting profits before people," but when the most likely source of numerous explosions and injuries is a substandard part in the most dangerous part of a cell phone, it certainly feeds into "profits before people" hysteria.

Luckily, for anyone injured by the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the law is on their side. Of course, having the law on your side and wielding it effectively are two completely different matters. Certainly, these injury victims can get compensation on their own, if they're willing to accept pennies on the dollar for their actual injuries, but to get fully compensated and hold Samsung fully accountable for their dangerous product, they will most likely require the skill and resources of a products liability attorney.

Companies like Samsung keep an army of attorneys on staff and when incidents like these occur, they unleash the legal hordes. While most people are reluctant to involve an attorney in their case, feeling that it makes them litigious, the fact is that in instances like these, the question isn't, "Should they have an attorney?" but, "Do they want to be the only one without an attorney?"

Some will assume that the government will hold Samsung accountable. Certainly, it is possible that fines may arise from this dangerous product. However, those fines will go into the government's coffers, not to compensate those who have actually been injured by the products. The only way for those injured by a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to get compensation for their injuries is to pursue legal action.

Most of the analysis of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall has tended to focus on how it will affect Samsung, their stock price, earnings, and reputation. While such reporting is important, it pales in comparison to the plight of those who have been injured by this defective product. Wouldn't it be nice if the "profits before people crowd" actually focused on the people they claim to be standing up for, as opposed to the profits of those they seek to demonize?