This post contains some graphic images.
Sidney Hayes, 23, was on a work break when he decided to have a smoke. After replacing his e-cigarette's rechargeable battery, Hayes went to take a drag—but then the device exploded in his mouth. His tongue and face were severely burned and he eventually had eight broken teeth surgically removed last December.
Today, Hayes and three other victims of exploding e-cigarettes filed individual lawsuits in King County Superior Court alleging that four Washington vape retailers sold e-cigarettes with defective batteries and other components that exploded and left them with severe burns and injuries.
“These batteries are a ticking time bomb and they’re causing harm all over the country,” attorney Gregory Bentley said during a press conference on Thursday.
Gruesome photographs of the victims’ injuries provided a backdrop for the press conference, which was held at the Washington Atheltic Club.
Olaf Ericksen, 40, and Dontae Gardner, 19, purchased their vape pens from ecigExpress in Seattle and Fatboy Vapors in Vancouver, respectively. Their devices exploded in their pants pockets, which then caught fire. Photos of their thighs, which were covered in angry red burns, were displayed for reporters on large posters.
Hayes and Marlene Rubertt, 45, purchased their e-cigarettes at Vape D Lish in Longview and Lilac City Vapor in Spokane. Both had their vapes explode in their mouths, resulting in blown out teeth and burned gums. Hayes and Rubertt required bone reconstruction surgery due to the severity of their injuries, said James S. Rogers, another attorney representing the victims.
Hayes, Ericksen, Gardner, and Rubertt are now seeking compensation for their injuries.
The explosions were caused by defective, overheated lithium-ion batteries that power the devices' heating element, which atomizes nicotine-infused "juice" into vapor. The batteries have become infamous in the last year as they have been the culprit behind exploding hoverboards and smartphones, said Gregory Bentley, an Irvine, Calif.-based attorney helping with the four lawsuits, during a press conference on Thursday.
The batteries and other e-cigarette parts are typically manufactured for cheap in China. As a result, when the defective batteries get overcharged by poorly made wall chargers, the device can explode "like a gunshot," he said.
So, if the faulty parts are made overseas, why not go after the big manufacturers rather than small Washington businesses?
"Legally, we're allowed to sue anyone in the supply chain. If we can [eventually] pursue the manufacturers and wholesalers, we will," said Cheryl Snow, who is on a team of attorneys prosecuting the vape retailers.
"The defect for these batteries has been known and retailers are profiting from selling these defective batteries and these parts that can harm consumers. The retailers play a direct part in putting the product in the hands and mouths of consumers," she said. "They play this critical role in putting the defective product out to the public. Consumers are walking in and not receiving warnings and making [purchasing] decisions based on price points."
Brad Bellinger, owner of Lilac City Vapors, and Allen Kettle, owner of Vape D Lish, said they didn't learn they were being sued until reporters started calling them Thursday afternoon.
Kettle told The Stranger he had heard about what happened to Hayes. He claimed that, before the accident, one of his employees received a text from Hayes who said his vape was overheating. He was told not to use it, said Kettle.
The owners of ecigExpress and Fatboy Vapors declined to comment.
Bentley said his law firm, Irvine, Calif.-based Bentley & More LLP, has processed more than 70 other e-cigarette cases since last year. The industry is largely unregulated due to push-back from Big Tobacco corporations, which includes Altria, R.J. Reynolds, and Philip Morris. The e-cigarette industry, which is valued at nearly $4 billion, has "run wild" with few federal regulations, he said.
And consumers have paid the price. A U.S. Fire Administration report found that 25 people were injured by explosive e-cigarettes between 2009 and 2014.
Many adults use e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aide or as a "healthier" alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes because the vapor doesn't contain the same toxins as smoke, said Rogers.
But Bentley and Rogers, in addition to other critics, also say that Big Tobacco is using e-cigarettes to target youth, advertising vape "juices" that come in a variety of flavors—everything from vanilla and blueberry pancake to fruit punch and "razzle berry." As of last year, youth used e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule that now allows them to regulate all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vape pens and their batteries. Unsurprisingly, e-cigarette advocates have slammed the new regulations as an unnecessary burden.