A DARKER SHADE OF GREEN: HAZARDS ASSOCIATED WITH LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES.

Author:Lebov, Harrison
 
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  1. Introduction

    Just as the invention of fire was integral to the survival of Neanderthals, Lithium-Ion ("li-ion") batteries are indispensable to Millennial. In today's modern, technology-driven world, the li-ion battery can be used to power electronic devices ranging from cell phones, to laptops, and even to cars. (1) At its most basic level, a battery is "a device that stores electrical energy," which can be transferred through an "easily controlled electro-chemical reaction" to power many of the electronic devices employed today. (2) A li-ion battery, more specifically, is a rechargeable battery, where the stored energy is depleted with use, but has the capability of being restored by plugging the battery, charger, or device into a power outlet, enabling a device to be "recharged many times over without much loss of capacity." (3) Li-ion batteries also possess a higher voltage than a standard alkaline battery, thus making li-ion batteries more advantageous. (4)

    As miraculous as the lithium-ion battery may sound, that is not to say that this technological advancement does not have its drawbacks. The least of these concerns may be that extended use of li-ion batteries over time will eventually decrease the charging capacity of the battery, or decrease the amount of energy that is able to be stored in a li-ion battery, resulting in an overall decrease in the battery life of an electronic device. (5) A more sinister issue, and frankly the focus of this Note, is the danger associated with a malfunctioning li-ion battery. (6)

    Overcharging and extended use of a li-ion battery can wear on the internal components of a battery, and thus make the battery susceptible to overheating. (7) When the internal components overheat, the most common result is the battery itself catching fire. (8) When a li-ion battery catches fire, contrary to popular belief, water may be ineffective in suppressing the fire, and electronics users may not have the knowledge or awareness to place the battery outside to ventilate. (9) A naive pedestrian, not knowing the complexity of the issue, is placed in excess danger when attempting to extinguish such a fire. (10) Aside from the physical hazards alone, the issue of liability remains. Is it the responsibility of the consumer to fully understand the implications of his or her use, even when the product is used as intended? Or should the onus of liability fall upon the manufacturer or company that places an unsafe product into the stream of commerce?

  2. History

    1. Inception and Evolution of Lithium-Ion Technology

      In 2014, John Bannister Goodenough, a German physicist, was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering for his prominent role in the creation of the lithium-ion battery. (11) Goodenough's work did not start there; rather, this award stemmed from a lifetime of work beginning at England's Oxford University back in 1979 with Dr. Peter G. Dickens. (12) Thanks to their discovery, a decade later, in 1991, Sony became "the first in the world to commercialize a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, forever changing the history of mobile devices." (13) Since 1991, the market for devices powered by li-ion technology has seen an "explosive growth," namely because of a demand for portable electronic devices. (14) Perhaps this boom in demand can also be attributed to the many advantages li-ion batteries have in comparison to other forms of energy storage, including "higher energy density," "relatively low self-discharge," and "minimal upkeep." (15) For the average consumer who is not well versed in the nuances of the technology behind li-ion batteries, preference for these batteries is most likely attributed to "higher terminal voltages" (i.e. longer battery lives), plus the lightweight metal and compact size of the battery, which makes for sleeker, sexier electronics. (16)

    2. Dangers Associated with Lithium-Ion Batteries

      There are some aspects of li-ion battery usage that are cause for concern. (17) First and foremost, there is a process called a "thermal runaway reaction" that can occur from overcharging a li-ion battery, which ultimately results in battery failure, and in some instances, flammable gasses are vented and may ignite. (18) Aside from overcharging, there are other causes of battery failures, which can contribute to an eventual fire. (19) Precariously, an effective "fire suppression strategy" has not yet been developed to combat fires caused by li-ion batteries. (20) Perhaps even more alarming is that in the event of a fire there are additional hazards to be aware of aside from the fire itself. (21) The next logical place to turn to is the effect that li-ion batteries have on the environment, and although this technology has not yet been in circulation long enough to fully grasp the long-term effects, in comparison to other batteries, the environmental impact appears to be minimal, but not insubstantial. (22) The Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") put together a "life-cycle assessment" to further explore the environmental impact of the use of li-ion batteries, and made recommendations based off of their findings. (23) Considering the nuanced nature of li-ion batteries and their relatively recent prominence on the international stage, there is not yet expansive, developed law on this subject, but there is, however, at least some brief federal recognition in the United States Code Annotated. (24)

    3. Product Liability Law in General

      Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, product liability law became relevant in American jurisprudence as a sort of blending of tort law and contract law. (25) Perhaps the very first case that sets the stage for today's product liability law is a nineteenth century English case, Winterbottom v. Wright, (26) where the concept of "privity" is first developed. (27) Albeit true, at that time, privity became a requisite for the finding of contractual or tortious liability, however, this is not a steadfast rule, evidenced by the holding in Thomas v. Winchester. (28) Here, Chief Judge Ruggles delivered the opinion of the court, holding that absent privity, a defendant may still be liable when "the defendant's duty [arises] out of the nature of his business and the danger to others incident to its mismanagement." (29) Then, Huset v. J. I. Case Threshing Machine Co. established three exceptions to the privity rule, which would eventually become the precedent for which this case is remembered. (30) At the time, Chief Judge Sanborn was reluctant to "overthrow or shake the established rule," but nevertheless delivered an opinion of the court that helped guide product liability law to the position it is today. (31) The "virtual disappearance" of privity from product liability law is further developed by the court in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (32) The court in MacPherson held that regardless of contractual agreements, when a manufacturer markets his product to the public, "[i]f he is negligent, where danger is to be foreseen, a liability will follow." (33)

      With the issue of privity in product liability law all but expelled, and keeping with the theme of automobile cases, Henningsen v Bloomfield Motors, Inc., (34) emerged as the landmark case for warranties. (35) This court held that an automobile manufacturer is liable for injuries to the plaintiffs, and accordingly, the manufacturer is unable to disclaim the implied warranty of merchantability because allowing such a result would be "so inimical to the public good." (36) Similarly, the concept of strict liability was developed therefrom in the case of Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Fresno, (37) the holding of which resulted in doctrinal change. (38) Through this case, strict liability has been touted as a sort of "liability without negligence" standard, where if a manufacturer's actions lead to a plaintiffs injuries, that entity is liable regardless of negligence. (39) This notion of absolute liability is later expanded upon in the ruling of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.,, where it went from a mere suggestion to an accepted doctrine. (40) Here, the court dismissed the manufacturer's argument that liability may only be assigned upon the plaintiff proving that an express warranty did not exist, and the court opined that assigning liability need not depend on the existence of a warranty at all, but rather on the simple fact that the product was defective. (41)

  3. Facts

    1. Relevant Codes and Standards

      The lithium used in powering our electronic devices comes primarily from China, South America, and Australia. (42) As of 2015, the estimated lithium battery market is about $23.5 billion U.S. dollars (43) and li-ion batteries are estimated to occupy about 24% of the consumer electronic market by 2020. (44) As previously established, this increase in li-ion battery usage does not come without environmental and personal safety hazards, many of which are governed by "codes and standards developed by several organizations." (45)

      Because lithium-ion batteries are considered "hazardous materials," Title 49 of the Code of Regulations governs transportation of such materials. (46) As defined by the Secretary of Transportation, hazardous materials are those that are "capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce." (47) More specifically, li-ion batteries are listed as a "Class 9" hazardous material, and have specific regulations attached to them. (48) In light of the potential for danger, the Department of Transportation and other American regulatory bodies have adopted the United Nations testing requirements and packaging requirements for shipping. (49)

      Another set of standards designed to reduce hazards, specifically fire hazards, associated with lithium-ion batteries are those put in place by Underwriters Laboratories, and are mainly derived from United Nations standards. (50) The International Electrotechnical Commission provide various...

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