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. Another is expected to be filed within a week.
"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.
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.
Michael Turner doesn't remember everything about the day that his electronic cigarette exploded in his pants, but his dad does.
"Mike had come into my room to grab a battery and walked behind a chair," Vince Turner said. "And I saw this great big flash."
Before he could ask what happened, his son ran back into the room screaming.
"It looked like he had a mini rocket in his pocket," Vince Turner said. "It was shooting flames at least 3 feet out of his pocket. I work as an electrician and I know burns. As it is almost extinguishing, Mike was just ripping his pants down and his left leg looked like it was covered in black soot."
Before he could tell Turner not to touch his leg, Turner tried to rub the black parts.
"The whole front part of his leg went sliding down to his knee," Vince Turner said.
Turner said he spent 13 "excruciating and traumatizing" days in a Houston burn unit. When he was released, he went through weeks of rehabilitation and had to relearn how to walk and tie his shoes. Long term, Turner said the incident has caused him anxiety.
"After I get off the phone, if I put my phone in my pocket and I feel that warmth, it will throw me into a slight panic attack," he said.
Jeff Hause, 31, was living near San Antonio when the electronic cigarette in his pocket exploded.
"It really happened out of nowhere," he said. "There was this real loud popping sound and my first thought was, 'What just happened?' then I looked down and saw this big ol' ball of fire come out of my pocket."
He started screaming and cursing from the pain, which caught the attention of his wife, who was outside painting. Hause, an Army veteran, was immediately taken to their on-base hospital and was put into the burn unit for second- and third-degree burns to his thigh, ankle and genitals. He also underwent a three-hour surgery and skin graft, he said.
Having been in the Army, he never expected to be hurt so severely in his own home.
"I have not stepped 10 feet near someone smoking an e-cig," he said. "It's a ticking time bomb."
Marvin Flowers, 39, of Bowie County, will soon be in court. His case is scheduled for July. Flowers is still recovering from the third-degree burns from his knee to his crotch inflicted by an exploding e-cigarette.
"I was in the burn unit for about three weeks," he said. "I couldn't walk. Just the thought of having to move my leg would make me scream in pain."
Flowers doesn't remember a lot from the day his electronic cigarette exploded. But he remembers the fire.
"There were green flames coming out of my pocket," he said. "I ran clear across the yard before I got the pants and battery off of my leg."
Like Hause and Turner, he started smoking electronic cigarettes to quit smoking cigarettes.
A month before the explosion, Hause said he modified his pen so the battery would last longer. All three men had pen modifications.
"I think I bought the battery that exploded about a month before," he said.
All four of Eiland's clients are seeking damages of more than $1 million each for medical care, future care, mental anguish, physical impairment, disfigurement and lost wages.
They aren't alone.
Two other men in Houston filed a lawsuit against LG Chemicals in September, according to ABC 13. Glenn Granger said he was working in Austin in April 2017 when he felt his leg start to get hot. He said he grabbed the battery just as flames started to shoot out one side.
LG Chemicals manufactured the HD2 18650 batteries used in Granger's device. It's the same battery that a Dallas man said exploded in his pants pocket in 2016, according to the Schmidt and Clark law firm.
In 2016, a woman in Arlington sued a vapor store for $1 million after her e-cigarette exploded in her pocket. The explosion caused a very hot mixture of shrapnel and battery liquid to burn through the flesh of her hand and leg. It caused third-degree burns, skin deformities and loss of sensation, according to her suit.
Her case was dismissed without prejudice last month.
But reparations of $1 million or more in such cases aren't unheard of.
In 2015, a California jury awarded a woman $1.9 million after she was injured by an exploding e-cigarette. Another woman in California was awarded $2 million. In Florida last year, a man who had four teeth blown out during an e-cigarette explosion was awarded more than $2 million by a jury.
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.
Turner, Hause and Flowers said they all experience some sort of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder from the incidents. Hause said even the sound of sizzling eggs in a frying pan sets him off.
"Definitely be careful and know exactly what you're playing with because at any given moment, it can change your life," he said in a message to others who still smoke electronic cigarettes.