Laptop Battery Pack Allegedly Causes Fatal House Fire, Killing Teen

    Zach Barreto

    Written by
    — Updated on July 21, 2020

    Laptop Battery Pack Allegedly Causes Fatal House Fire, Killing Teen

    Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co.
    Citation: 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40386

    Facts

    The plaintiffs’ son bought an HP laptop that contained a battery pack manufactured by DynaPack.  The battery pack was made up of three lithium ion battery cells manufactured by Samsung SDL. A year later, the plaintiffs’ son died in a fire. Afterward, fire investigators found the laptop and a cell phone on a mattress in the room where the fire had broken out, however, the battery pack was missing from the laptop. Investigators later found the battery pack in a pile of debris retrieved from the incident but they could not determine the cause of the fire because the location of the battery at the time of the fire was unknown. The plaintiffs sued the laptop maker and alleged that an internal malfunction of the battery pack had caused the fire that fatally injured their son. The plaintiffs hired a batteries expert witness to determine whether the battery cells of the laptop could have caused the fire.

    The Batteries Expert Witness

    The batteries expert witness was the founder and president of the firm Battery Safety Consulting, Inc., a company providing professional and consulting services on a wide range of issues relating to battery safety. His company’s services included malfunction assessment, test system design, and evaluation of test results. The expert held a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, a master’s degree in inorganic chemistry from the same university, and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Minnesota. He had extensive experience in all types of batteries, including lithium batteries.

    The expert physically examined the laptop, the batteries, and the cell phone recovered from the scene. He opined that the decomposition speed of one of the three battery cells in the deceased’s battery pack was much higher than the others. This led to the creation of heat and gas, resulting in a “thermal runaway”. He also outlined potential causes of thermal runaway: a short circuit, physical abuse, heat from an external source, or an intrinsic defect. Through further investigation, the expert concluded the thermal runaway was caused by a short circuit due to an intrinsic defect in the battery. This thermal runaway had caused the battery in question to eject its contents. The expert also stated that this “ejecta” would be hot enough to provide a source of ignition. He ruled out the cell phone battery as a source of the fire because its battery did not eject its contents.

    The defendant sought to exclude the batteries expert’s testimony, asserting that he was not qualified as an expert and his opinion was unreliable.

    Discussion

    The court was not convinced by the defendant’s claims that the expert had no experience in battery packs or laptop computers. The court explained that these were not the topics he was retained to testify on. Rather, the expert opined on lithium ion batteries and their potential failures. The court, however, did concede to the defendant’s argument against the expert’s general experience and qualifications related to computer battery manufacturing and maintenance. But, the court noted that in personal injury cases, courts usually permit witnesses with general engineering or science backgrounds to testify as to the safety of a product, “even where the witness has no specific experience with the product or industry in question,” citing Hasan v. Cottrell, Inc.

    The court also ruled that the expert’s opinion was a series of unsubstantiated claims that were not backed by scientific methodology. Further, the court discussed that the expert had acknowledged that he could have tested his hypothesis, but he had not done so. The expert had also stated at deposition that the battery cell could have ejected its contents during the fire—meaning it’s possible that that the cell did not start the fire. The court, thus, found his testimony to be unreliable and not supported by the evidence in the record.

    Held

    The court granted the defendant’s motion to exclude the batteries expert witness’s testimony.

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