A fire started by  lithium-ion batteries that were in transported from  Sarasota, Florida, in the U.S., to Toronto, Canada, in 2016 prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to renew its call for stronger safety regulations regarding the transporting of the batteries, especially those transported by airplanes. The batteries were initially transported by two FedEx cargo planes. The batteries ignited 10 hours after they were offloaded and placed on a delivery truck.

The NTSB is charged with investigating such incidents involving transportation. It joined Canadian authorities to investigate the incident and explained that if the fire had occurred while the batteries were aboard the aircraft in the air, it could have caused the plane to crash. While the agency cannot create policies or regulations, it can and does offer recommendations, based on findings from investigations, to improve safety.

The investigators learned that four batteries in fiberboard boxes shipped from Braille Battery Inc. in Florida, to Indianapolis by air and then on to Toronto were the culprits of the fire. The thermal runaway, or overheating, was likely caused by a series of factors and events including the changes in air pressure when moving into the air and then back on the ground, as well as shaking and other movement while in flight. Thermal runaway occurs when a lithium-ion battery is defective and when the heat generated by the charging and discharging ignites the electrolytes. This will cause a fire or explosion. The fire destroyed the delivery truck and all its contents.

The final report explained that Braille could not show that it conducted the required testing of the batteries for the different factors that likely led to the fire. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations specialized agency, requires lithium-ion batteries that are being transported by air to be tested for their response to vibrations, overcharging, short circuiting and varying pressures and temperatures. The ICAO exempts low-production and prototype lithium-ion batteries from rigorous tests and only requires the batteries pass a short circuit test. However, Braille did not apply for the exemption and could not show that it conducted the more rigorous tests. The investigators also faulted the company for failing to use packaging that met international standards.

The NTSB has asked the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to seek changes in international regulations that would remove the exemption and require rigorous testing of all lithium-ion batteries. The U.S. has to make the request because its law “prohibits [U.S.] standards from being more stringent than ICAO standards.” If the international standards are amended by removing the exemption, the NTSB recommend the U.S. follow by also removing the exemption for its regulations. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said that it will review the recommendations.

In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was going to fine Braille a $1.1 million civil penalty for the incident but settled for $235,000 based on the company’s ability to pay.

Beasley Allen attorneys provide decades of experience in claims involving defective products, such as lithium-ion batteries. If you would like more information about lithium-ion batteries, you can contact Will Sutton, a lawyer in our Toxic Torts Section.

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