Crime & Courts

Exploding iPhone gave SC man severe burns, lawsuit says. Rare but real, experts say

The exterior of Apple headquarters is seen in March 2016. A Sumter man is suing the company after he said an iPhone exploded in his pocket and caused severe burns.
The exterior of Apple headquarters is seen in March 2016. A Sumter man is suing the company after he said an iPhone exploded in his pocket and caused severe burns. AP

A South Carolina man is suing Apple after he claims his iPhone exploded in his pocket.

Court documents say the explosion caused severe burns on the back, arms and limbs of Ronnie Portee of Sumter. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, seeks damages in excess of $75,000.

Portee says the burns led to five surgeries and a trying period in his life.

“It was a yearlong process,” Portee says.

The incident happened on Oct. 25, 2016. Portee had ended a telephone call with his wife and placed the iPhone 6 in his pocket. He was walking through his son’s home when he began to feel “extreme heat” as well as the “crackling of the clothes,” according to the lawsuit.

Portee’s “flesh and clothes were burning.” He fell and tore off his clothes.

Portee’s son rushed his father to a Sumter-area hospital, but the burns were so severe that Portee was airlifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. Having suffered burns across his body, Portee underwent several surgeries following the incident.

Portee operated the iPhone 6 normally, according to the lawsuit. He used the charger that was provided with the phone. “Mr. Portee neither misused nor materially altered the iPhone,” the court documents say.

“As a result of his iPhone explosion ... (Portee) will continue to suffer both physically and emotionally for the rest of his life,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Portee also has to live with the permanent scarring he suffered ...”

The lawsuit claims Apple knew the iPhone 6 could explode when it was put on the market and that the phone was not manufactured in a way to prevent explosions. The phone also lacked a warning about the potential for combustion, according to the suit.

“The iPhone design was defective because the danger associated with the use of the iPhone as designed outweighs its utility,” the suit says.

The iPhone 6 was provided to Portee from Asurion Insurance Services, as part of a protection plan that would replace the phone if anything happened to it. Portee got the iPhone that exploded after the screen cracked on another phone, according to the lawsuit. Portee is also suing Asurion.

On how much Portee might receive as a settlement, his lawyer, George Sink Jr., said, “It’ll be significant. He had substantial medical bills. This wasn’t his fault. He shouldn’t have to pay those bills. The pain and suffering was extraordinary.”

Neither Apple nor Asurion responded in time for this story.

The lithium batteries in mobile phones are known to explode on rare occasions. When an ignition occurs, it’s usually because a battery is pierced, says Demetril O’Neal, a partner at the Smart Phone Medic on Gervais Street in Columbia.

Piercing a cellphone battery causes an “electrical arc,” O’Neal says, which is basically like connecting metal wires to the positive and negative ends of a battery and bringing the wires together. It’s similar to what happens when jumper cables touch each other while connected to a car battery, according to O’Neal.

Arcing can cause a reaction in a phone battery that would lead to combustion.

In all the weird ways people destroy their phones, O’Neal said, he’s yet to come across someone whose battery blew up in their pocket.

“We’ve definitely seen phones that have been shot with BB guns, phones ran over and ones severely bent,” O’Neal says. “Even in all those cases, the battery did not explode or ignite.”

Overcharging a battery or leaving it on a charger too long can lead to it exploding, according to an article by tech website The Verge. For a variety of reasons, including getting too hot, overcharging can cause the internal components of a phone battery to break down, thus leading chemicals and materials inside the battery to combine and cause a reaction, which ends in fire.

While phone-battery explosions are rare, they do occur. In January, an Apple store in Zurich, Switzerland, had to be evacuated after a worker at the store attempted to extract a battery from an iPhone, according to a CNN story. The employee suffered minor burns while seven others received medical attention, though none were hospitalized.

Also in January, an iPhone battery blew up in a man’s face when he bit into it in an electronics store in China. Newsweek reported on the incident.

In 2016, a string of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones randomly caught on fire, leading to recalls and the eventual cancellation of the product. Samsung said poor battery manufacturing led to the incidents, the New York Times reported. The defective batteries reportedly caused Samsung to change its battery suppliers, according to tech site CNet.

Portee’s alleged iPhone incident caused him to make a change too.

“I got Android,” he says.

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