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Alice Brown sits in her Fort Worth, Texas living room and talks about the death of her grandson, William Brown. Brown, 24, was killed last month after a vape pen exploded in his face. He is at least the second person in the United States reportedly killed by an exploding e-cigarette. 

FORT WORTH, Texas — What some people thought was a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes has left at numerous people across the nation disfigured and burned after their electronic cigarettes exploded.

Now, their attorneys have filed lawsuits targeting the manufacturers of e-cigarette batteries and the vape stores that sell them.

The issue of e-cigarette safety resurfaced after 24-year-old William Brown of Fort Worth was killed last month when his e-cig exploded in his face, causing an artery in his neck to be severed. It’s not known what type of device he was using, if it was modified or what company manufactured the battery.

Austin-based attorney A. Craig Eiland has four open lawsuits involving injured smokers of e-cigarettes and said all four of his clients face long, hard roads to recovery. Eiland works alongside his co-counsel, Angela Nehmens of Levin Simes Abrams LLP in California.

“We have retained 50 cases and have filed 20 so far,” Nehmens said of her firm. Five of those, including Eiland’s cases, are in Texas.  

“We have clients who have lost teeth or they’ve had projectile pieces of the (device) go into their neck and skin,” she said. “We have one gentleman who is paralyzed in part of his body because of nerve damage.”

The injuries in the lawsuits Eiland has filed are significant.

— On July 7, 2016, an e-cigarette device inside the left pants pocket of 25-year-old Michael Turner of Houston exploded. He was treated in a burn unit for second- and third-degree burns spanning from his left thigh to his calf. The battery was an Efest IMR 18650.

— On March 19, 2017, a man in Pearland was injured when his device exploded in his pocket, causing him to catch fire. The e-cigarette was manufactured by WISMEC USA.

— A Brownsville woman was injured on May 24, 2017, when her device exploded in her purse. It caused her purse, pants, undergarments and shirt to catch fire. She suffered second- and third-degree burns. That suit targets Samsung SDI, Co., which manufactured the battery.

— Also in May 2017, an e-cigarette being held in the pants pocket of Jeff Hause, 31, exploded, causing severe burns to his genitalia and left leg. He was hospitalized for 11 days. The battery was manufactured by LG then incorporated into a SMOK GX350 modification. Some e-cigarette modifications allow users to purchase batteries that are bigger and last longer, or tanks that hold more liquid.

Electronic cigarettes aren’t yet regulated by the FDA and going after the battery manufacturers poses its own difficulties because they’re made abroad, Nehmens said.

“Samsung and LG are two major brands,” she said. “The batteries aren’t meant to be used with electronic cigarettes. They’re very high-powered batteries that are meant to be used in power tools and things like that. We have an expert we use who has likened these to bullets. You have a bullet in your pocket that can explode at any time.”

Gregory Conley with the American Vaping Association said injuries from electronic cigarettes are rare when you consider that millions of adults use vapor products regularly.

They are “generally linked to mechanical mods, a type of product that represents a continually shrinking minority of the market. These devices contain no internal circuitry to stop fire incidences, and thus can be dangerous if used improperly,” Conley said.

“When any lithium-ion battery-operated device is subjected to extreme conditions or used with unwrapped or damaged batteries, short circuits can occur,” he said. “Users of modern devices like JUUL or virtually any product that is not a mechanical mod have nothing to fear from this story, as internal safety mechanisms designed to dramatically reduce the chances of battery issues occurring have become a standard in the industry.”

Conley said his group supported the Cole-Bishop Amendment, which would have required the FDA to set standards for batteries used in vaping products.

It didn’t pass.

As more cases wind through the courts and become publicized, the possibility of more lawsuits seems likely. Researchers have found more than 2,000 reports of e-cigarette explosions that caused injuries over a period of two years.

A recent study, done in part by Dennis Thombs, dean of the School of Public Health at UNT Health Science Center, showed that e-cigarette injuries are widely underreported across the nation. Researchers found that there were an estimated 2,035 e-cigarette explosions and burn injuries in hospital emergency rooms from 2015 to 2017.

That number was more than 40 times higher than the number of injuries reported by the FDA from 2009 to 2015. The study also found a lack of a surveillance system to track those injuries.

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