A shipment of lithium-ion batteries is the suspected source of a fire that broke out on an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 777 cargo jet at China’s Shanghai Pudong International Airport July 22.

The massive fire broke out aboard the plane as it was being loaded with freight bound for Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Santiago, Chile, via a stop in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The blaze consumed much of the 777 freighter and burned through the walls and ceiling of the fuselage before firefighters were able to contain it.

International rules and regulations governing rechargeable lithium-ion batteries aboard commercial aircraft have been contested for years. While commercial jets routinely carry all sorts of commercial cargo, shipments of lithium-ion batteries are not permitted on passenger flights for safety reasons.

While the batteries are allowed to be shipped on cargo jets, the Ethiopian Airlines fire demonstrates that dangers persist despite the strict rules governing their carriage. Nobody was injured in the Shanghai fire, but had the 777 been airborne when the blaze started, it’s unlikely the crew would have survived.

Currently, the best protection cargo planes have against lithium-ion battery shipments is a rule adopted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (IACO) requiring batteries in cargo shipments to be charged at no more than 30% capacity – a rule that U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  studies found safe.

However, even with strict shipping rules in place, the truth is that there is no way to ensure that manufacturers are complying with them. This is especially the case in China where government oversight of cheaply made consumer goods remains dismal.

The number of consumer goods that are run on rechargeable lithium batteries has proliferated in recent years. They are used to power just about every kind of portable electronic device, from e-cigarettes and other vaping devices to cell phones, laptops and hoverboards.

According to The Loadstar, the Ethiopian Airlines freighter’s manifest shows there were three pallets of lithium-ion batteries aboard. The fire is still under investigation, so it’s too early to know where the batteries originated and what kind of devices they are intended to power.

Peter East & Associates, a UK-based dangerous goods specialist and consultancy firm, told The Loadstar on July 17 that new rules allowing powered scooters in several countries could lead to a rise in the frequency of risky shipments. While these e-scooters must be shipped in compliance with international lithium-ion battery regulations, “many new shippers may not know the rules,” The Loadstar reported.

Problems also persist with undeclared counterfeit batteries, poor packaging, and mis-declared lithium-ion batteries, making international shipments of lithium-ion batteries not only risky for cargo flights but for consumers who regularly use and travel with them.

Exploding devices and serious burn injuries

Beasley Allen is currently investigating similar cases involving severe injuries caused by exploding devices and lithium-ion batteries. In particular, our lawyers are seeing cases of serious burn injuries after use of faulty e-cigarette products. With few regulations to ensure their safety, e-cigarette devices have been aggressively marketed and sold in stores throughout the United States. Contact William Sutton for more information or to discuss a possible claim.

Additional sources:
Reuters Africa
South China Morning Post

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