IL appeals court tosses Samsung from lawsuit over exploding vape battery

A state appeals panel has reversed a Sangamon County judge’s ruling and freed Samsung from a lawsuit seeking to impose liability for a man whose vaping device battery exploded.

Steven Wood sued Samsung and Tribble Vapors, the seller of the e-cigarette he bought in December 2020. His lawsuit claims the device’s lithium-ion battery cell, made by Samsung, exploded in January 2021 while in his pocket, causing third-degree leg burns and minor hand burns, which led to a weeklong hospitalization.

Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Robin Schmidt denied Samsung’s motion to be dismissed from the complaint, a decision the South Korean corporation challenged before the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court. Justice Eugene Doherty wrote the panel’s opinion, filed June 4; Justices Robert Steigmann and Amy Lannerd concurred.

In its initial motion to dismiss, Samsung argued it “has no employees, officers, business agents, directors, or representatives in” Illinois, isn’t registered to do business in the state and doesn’t conduct business directly with Illinois retailers, including Tribble Vapors, along with other declarations.

Although Samsung does make “numerous sizes and models of battery cells,” according to the company, it said the 18650 designation in Wood’s complaint is a generic descriptor for batteries 18 millimeters in diameter and 65 millimeters in height.

Samsung said it “designs and markets 18650 lithium-ion battery cells to be used solely by sophisticated business entities who acquire the cells in bulk either for assembly in battery packs with a self-contained battery management unit, or for incorporation as a component in authorized products. E-cigarette/vaping devices are not authorized products, and (Samsung) does not manufacture any battery cells to be used in e-cigarette/vaping devices like the ones described in” Wood’s complaint.

Wood supplied the court with links to websites where people could buy 18650s from Samsung, including three Illinois vape shops, and cited several other third-party products that use Samsung batteries, like power tools and golf carts. In its response, Samsung said Wood’s evidence, at best, constituted “unsupported allegations that a third party unilaterally diverted one of Samsung’s 18650 cells from its intended, authorized chain of distribution and installed it in the e-cigarette that plaintiff purchased.”

Doherty said the appellate panel reached its decision on jurisdiction “based on the first of three steps” regarding whether Samsung purposefully availed itself of Illinois as a specific marketplace.

“There is no evidence that Samsung shipped 18650 cells into Illinois either directly or through an authorized agent,” Doherty wrote. “Indeed, there is no evidence that Samsung itself shipped any battery cells of any kind into Illinois.”

The panel further noted Wood provided no evidence showing Samsung, as a corporate entity, took any action to benefit specifically from the laws, infrastructure and business climate of Illinois. Any relationship with third parties directly selling Samsung batteries to Illinoisans isn’t sufficient to establish jurisdiction.

Wood also wanted the appellate panel to stop short of a full reversal and instead allow for jurisdictional discovery. Although the panel acknowledged Samsung’s written statement “appears very carefully worded to avoid a finding of specific personal jurisdiction” and noted that because “Samsung is a household name (Wood) may easily be able to obtain evidence” to establish jurisdiction, Doherty explained Wood should’ve raised this point before Judge Schmidt and a failure to do so constituted forfeiture of the right to invoke the request on appeal.

“Because plaintiff was willing to accept a favorable result on the existing record, we decline to remand so he can expand the record in an attempt to avoid an unfavorable result.”

The panel reversed the ruling with regards to Samsung and remanded the complaint for further proceedings but expressed no opinion regarding Wood’s claims against Tribble.

This article was first published in Madison Record.

Leave a Reply