Erik Howell was about to leave work in January when the spare battery for his electronic cigarette exploded in his left pocket.
His pants ignited. The flames charred his legs, genitals and about 75% of the skin on his penis, his lawyer said.
Still reeling from the pain and recovering from the burns, Howell, 26, on Wednesday took legal aim at what he alleges is one of the culprits for his injuries: LG Chem, the Korean chemical company that’s among the world’s largest battery manufacturers.
“Even though I try to go through my day ... the public definitely needs to be aware of these batteries,” Howell said at a news conference in a Glendale hotel to announce a lawsuit.
LG Chem, a subsidiary of LG, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Howell’s Los Angeles Superior Court case is one of 10 civil suits filed across the state — including in Riverside, Placer, San Diego and Santa Barbara counties — by electronic cigarette users who say the vaping device or battery left them injured and burned.
Four of the cases, including Howell’s, name LG Chem as a defendant. The suits also target an array of smoke shops and vendors that peddle e-cigarettes and batteries.
“These are devastating injuries,” said Gregory L. Bentley of Irvine-based Bentley & More LLP, the lead attorney in the batch of cases. “Second- and third-degree burns. Loss of teeth, loss of eyes. These are massive injuries that are occurring across the country.
“It’s crazy to me that the No. 1 battery manufacturer in the world is producing batteries that are exploding, causing significant injuries,” Bentley added. He said his firm is handling an additional 15 cases against LG Chem associated with e-cigarettes.
Mark Hardy was at a job site in Long Beach when, he said, an LG-made battery in his right pocket exploded, causing second- and third-degree burns to his leg and thigh, according to his lawsuit, expected to be filed in Riverside County Superior Court.
In 2016, Amelia Vickers was driving from her home in Orcutt, in the Santa Maria Valley, when a battery blew up in her apron pocket, setting her clothes ablaze. The flames left her with first- and second-degree burns to her left leg, face and elbow, her attorneys said.
Howell’s injuries occurred Jan. 15, and after his clothes ignited, he was rushed to Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City, then taken to the burn unit at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, according to his lawsuit.
Proponents of electronic cigarettes view many of the lawsuits with skepticism and say that a spare lithium-ion battery in one’s pocket only becomes a hazard because of the presence of keys or coins.
“With any lithium-ion batteries, if it is loose and comes into contact with metal, a reaction can occur,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Assn., an advocacy organization. “Many vape shops give away battery cases. If a consumer leaves a store and declines to use the case, there’s nothing they can do.”
Electronic cigarettes have been sold in the U.S. since 2007 and for many are a popular alternative to smoking regular cigarettes. There are about 2.75 million e-cigarette smokers in the U.S. in an industry with sales approaching $3 billion, according to figures released by the L.A.-based Statistic Brain research institute.
The devices typically include lithium-ion batteries with a flammable liquid that can explode. Howell’s lawsuit contends that poor design, defective manufacturing, inappropriate use and other factors can lead to a rise in the battery’s internal temperature and trigger a fire or explosion.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Fire Administration found that between 2009 and 2016, nearly 200 incidents of fires or explosions involving e-cigarettes were reported across the nation, according to news reports. None were fatal, but about one-third led to severe injuries.
The report found that just over 30% of incidents occurred when the battery or e-cigarette was in a user’s pocket.
Bentley has become one of the leading attorneys in the litigation against e-cigarette sellers after he persuaded jurors in Riverside County in 2015 to award $1.9 million to a woman who was burned by her e-cigarette battery.
On Wednesday, the lawyer said he was troubled by the lack of regulation of the e-cigarette market as well as its targeting of minors.
“This industry will not police itself,” Bentley said. “We saw how the cigarette industry failed to police itself.”
Conley, of the vaping advocacy group, disagreed. He said that many small vaping companies were opposed to policy proposals that would result in handing the market to big Wall Street-backed firms.
“This industry is resisting regulation that’s prohibition in disguise,” he said.
Meanwhile, a long recovery awaits Howell, who also named in his lawsuit two shops — in Burbank and La Cañada Flintridge — where he purchased the battery, a charger and other devices connected to the electronic cigarette. It’s still not clear whether the burns left “functional problems” in the burn area around his genitals.
“The doctors are uncertain,” Bentley said. “He suffered a lot of nerve damage…. Time will tell.”