PA Judge Approves $38 Million Settlement in Hoverboard Fire

In a recent high-profile case, retailer Target and product manufacturer Jetson Electric Bikes came to a $38.5 million settlement with the parents of two girls who died in a 2022 house fire caused by a defective hoverboard, the Jetson Rogue.

Child riding hoverboard

BySeth Mills, J.D.

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Published on March 28, 2024

Child riding hoverboard

Background

Damien Kaufman, one of the parents of Abigail Kaufman and Brianna Baer, bought a hoverboard from a Quakertown Target for his daughters in December 2018. On April 1, 2022, the hoverboard was charging inside the Kaufman home in Hellertown, PA, when it ignited and started a catastrophic house fire. The two girls, aged 10 and 15 years old, were trapped inside their second-floor bedroom and died of smoke inhalation and fire-related injuries. The entire house was destroyed.

In November 2022, Damien and Jennifer Kaufman filed a complaint in the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death and Survival Acts, alleging that the defendants engaged in “negligent, reckless, intentional, fraudulent, and/or outrageous conduct” in marketing and selling their hoverboards.

The complaint alleged both design and manufacturing defects in the hoverboard. Specifically, the hoverboard’s batteries were subject to degradation over time, causing them to short-circuit when charging and start fires. The plaintiffs alleged that Jetson failed to adequately test the hoverboards, and continued to market and sell the product despite knowing that there were fire risks. Jetson also failed to warn consumers of the risk and how to minimize it.

On March 30, 2023, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled the Jetson Rogue hoverboard based on the two girl’s deaths, as well as numerous other reports of the hoverboards catching fire.

The Settlement

The terms of the settlement provided $15 million for the plaintiff's attorneys under a 40% contingency fee agreement and $286 thousand in legal costs. The allocation of the remainder of the settlement was 80% to the girl’s parents for the wrongful death claim, and 20% to the girl’s estates under the survival claim.

Pennsylvania law requires approval of the settlement of claims brought by an estate. Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr. approved the settlement on February 16, 2024. In approving the settlement, the Judge considered the adequacy of the settlement and the reasonableness of the apportionment between the wrongful death and survival claims, and the attorney’s fees. In his opinion, the Judge noted that the parties had engaged in significant litigation and discovery prior to the settlement, including settlement negotiations facilitated by Magistrate Court Judge Pamela Carlos. On January 24, the Judge had also declined to seal the court documents relating to the settlement, citing the public interest in access to civil judicial proceedings, especially in cases related to consumer safety.

The plaintiffs were represented by Thomas Kline, Aaron Dunbar, and John O’Neil of Kline & Specter, a personal injury firm based out of Philadelphia. The defendants were represented by attorney Roman Klaric of the law firm Franco Moroney Buenik LLC, Dennis Ziemba of Eckert Seamans, and Eugene M. LaFlamme and David A. Dubois of McCoy Leavitt Laskey.

The Dangers of Lithium Battery Fires

The lithium-ion batteries used in electric bikes and scooters like the Jetson hoverboard are prone to overheat and explode. The batteries are made of individual cells wired together, and a single cell overheating can cause a chain reaction of explosions. Lithium battery fires are particularly dangerous because they can explode very quickly, and the fires spread extremely fast. These fires also cannot be smothered with a fire extinguisher.

Mobile phones and laptop computers also use these types of batteries, which have led to product recalls and are known to cause fires as well, but their smaller size means they are a less serious risk. Mobile devices have also been the subject of regulation for years. The rapid proliferation of personal electric vehicles like the Jetson hoverboards and e-bikes over the past few years, especially since Covid, has left regulators racing to catch up with the explosion of fires caused by these vehicle batteries. The vast majority of these batteries are manufactured outside of the country, further complicating safety regulations.

Several safety organizations, including the US-based Underwriter Laboratories, have established safety regulations for lithium batteries. Consumers should look for the UL mark to confirm that their product has been manufactured in compliance with UL safety standards, but companies are not yet required to comply with these standards.

A bill with unanimous, bipartisan support is now pending in Congress. This bill would give the Consumer Product Safety Commission an explicit directive to create mandatory safety standards for manufacturers and retailers on how to build and import personal electric vehicle batteries safely. In NYC, where huge fleets of delivery workers use e-bikes, legislators in 2023 passed several bills aimed at preventing battery fires, including restrictions on vehicles with batteries that don’t meet safety standards, a restriction on re-using any cells from used batteries, a bill requiring the Fire Department to report annually on these fires, a PSA campaign developed by the Fire Department and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, and a PSA campaign directed specifically at delivery workers regarding the danger of e-bike battery fires.

Takeaways for Attorneys

The rise in lithium battery fires corresponds to a rise in litigation over these incidents. In October 2023, another Pennsylvania family sued Target and Jetson in product liability claims over another hoverboard fire in their home in 2021. A Vancouver woman has sued an e-bike manufacturer and battery repair shop following an apartment fire that killed her husband. In the United States, the largest number of lithium battery fires, and related lawsuits, originate in New York City.

Attorneys bringing product liability cases over hoverboard and electric bike accidents can rely on expert witnesses to testify to design and manufacturing defects and safety best practices, as well as medical experts. Staying up to date on current legislation and litigation over lithium battery fires will help both plaintiff and defense attorneys to successfully litigate cases on behalf of their clients.

About the author

Seth Mills, J.D.

Seth Mills, J.D.

Seth Mills, J.D., a career counselor at New York Law School, has a substantial background in legal education and public interest initiatives. Currently serving as the Director of Public Interest & Pro Bono Initiatives and an Adjunct Professor for the Law Office Externship Seminar at New York Law School, Seth focuses on guiding law students in their professional development and legal externship experiences.

Prior to these roles, Seth was a Legal Content Writer for the Expert Institute, contributing to the development and curation of legal content. At Lawline.com, Seth held multiple positions, including Senior Program Attorney and Managing Blog Editor, where he was responsible for creating legal educational materials and managing legal publications.

Seth's legal career began as an Associate Attorney at Sterling Analytics Group, providing a foundation in practical legal work. Additionally, Seth volunteered as a Policy Advocate with the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), demonstrating a commitment to public interest law.

In terms of education, Seth earned a J.D. cum laude from New York Law School, where they were involved in NYLS OUTlaws and the Criminal Law Society. Seth also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Bard College at Simon's Rock. Their educational and professional experiences reflect a deep commitment to legal education, public interest law, and the mentoring of future legal professionals.