Jennifer Ries and her husband were traveling to the airport for an international trip when she decided she should charge her e-cigarette battery.
After plugging the device into the car's charger, liquid started dripping from the battery, she said. The car filled with a smell like nail polish remover. Then, with a loud bang, the battery exploded.
Flames shot out, catching Ries' dress and seat on fire. Chemicals spewed onto her lap, leaving her with severe burns. Panicked and aflame, she tried to jump out of the moving car, but her husband pulled her back and poured iced coffee on her to douse the fire.
Ries said she sustained second-degree burns on her legs, buttocks and hand in the March 2013 accident. She still has physical and emotional scars, she said.
On Wednesday, a Riverside County Superior Court jury awarded her nearly $1.9 million in a lawsuit she brought against the electronic cigarette's distributor, VapCigs; its wholesaler, Cartons 2 Go; and the Corona store where she bought it, Tobacco Expo.
Her product liability lawsuit alleged that the businesses in the supply chain were "involved in the distribution of a product that failed to conform to any kind of reasonable safety expectation — battery chargers should not explode — and failed to warn about known dangers."
"It was an accident that completely changed my life," said Ries, 31, of San Clemente. "You never expect when you buy something that it's going to misfire or break or injure you. It was extremely scary."
Ries' attorney, Gregory L. Bentley, said he believed the case was the first e-cigarette explosion lawsuit to be tried in the United States. Bentley said that despite huge sales, the fledgling e-cigarette industry is largely unregulated, with few safeguards for consumer protection.
"If you're going to be in the business of manufacturing, distributing, wholesaling or retailing a product, you need to make sure that what you're selling is safe," Bentley said. "If you don't, you're doing so at your own peril."
Attorneys for the defendants did not return calls seeking comment.
Electronic cigarettes have been available for sale in the United States since 2007, and constitute a multibillion-dollar industry, with more than 2.5 million users, according to a 2014 report on e-cigarette fires and explosions by the U.S. Fire Administration.
The report included an analysis of 25 e-cigarette fires since 2009, based on media reports. Of those, 20 of the fires were caused when the device's battery was being charged, the report said. Ries' case was included in the report.
The Fire Administration said e-cigarettes often use lithium-ion batteries that include flammable liquid electrolytes that can explode when they overheat, such as when they receive too much voltage while charging.
Many e-cigarettes have USB ports for connecting the device to power adapters provided by the manufacturer. But the "ordinary USB port charging connections" allow users to plug them in to other adapters or USB ports — which can provide varied voltages and electric current. If the battery receives too much current, it can explode, the report said.
Ries purchased a VapCigs package from Tobacco Expo that included an e-cigarette, a charger and a lithium-ion battery, according to the lawsuit.
The VapCigs battery could only hold a charge at less than 4.2 volts, but "the voltage provided from a universal charger in a car cigarette lighter is much higher, ... about 5 volts," the lawsuit alleged.
Ries alleged that VapCigs materials mentioned that the battery could be charged with a car charger and did not warn about the dangers of doing so. After the explosion that injured Ries, the suit alleged, "VapCigs began warning users not to charge the battery in the car."
Bentley said the defendants disputed the nature and extent of Ries' injuries but that they admitted the product was defective and that they failed to properly warn of the defects.
Ries said she was happy with the verdict and hoped it would lead to more testing and regulation of e-cigarettes and their batteries.
"There are tons of people using them ... and there are going to be more and more accidents like this in the future," she said. "I hope it really awakens people to do something about it."