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Why do Tesla car batteries catch fire, and what legal options do you have if you are injured?
A Tesla owner was driving his Tesla Model S in Los Gatos, California when he got a flat tire. His car was towed to a shop... where it burst into flames.
“I heard a strange hissing sound. I came out and there was smoke everywhere. So the shop immediately called the fire department,” said the owner. “By the time they got here, the car was already on fire.”
Firefighters put out the fire and waited for the battery to cool before towing the Tesla to a new lot, where it promptly caught fire again.
Tesla, a popular electric vehicle company, has been plagued by lawsuits arising from battery fires since a Tesla Model S first burst into flames in 2013. In this article, we’ll look at the history of Tesla battery fires and discuss your legal options if you’re injured as a result of your Tesla’s battery catching fire.
Overview of Tesla battery fires
On October 2, 2013, a Tesla Model S caught fire for the first time when it collided with some debris on Highway 167 in Kent, Washington. On the same day, Tesla company spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean released a statement explaining that the fire was caused by a large metallic object striking one of the lithium-ion batteries.
More than 40 Tesla fires have since been reported. Many of the fires occurred after collisions, but several occurred while the vehicles were parked.
Timeline of Tesla battery fires
Here’s a look at just a few of the Tesla battery fires that have occurred since a Tesla first burst into flames on October 2, 2013.
- November 7, 2013. In Smyrna, Tennessee, a Tesla Model S caught fire after the electric car ran over a tow hitch that hit the undercarriage of the vehicle.
- November 15, 2013. A fire broke out in an Irvine, California garage where a Tesla Model S was plugged in and charging. Tesla upgraded the wall charger adapters and provided them to customers free of charge in response to the incident.
- November 19, 2013. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a preliminary evaluation to determine if undercarriage strikes presented an undue fire risk on the 2013 Tesla Model S. An estimated population of 13,108 Model S cars were part of this initial investigation.
- February 1, 2014. A Tesla Model S caught fire in a garage in Toronto, Canada. The car was parked and not plugged in.
- March 28, 2014. The NHTSA announced that it had closed the investigation into whether the Model S design was making the electric car prone to catch fire, after Tesla said it would provide more protection for its lithium-ion batteries, including a titanium underbody shield, aluminum deflector plates, and increased ground clearance.
- July 16, 2014. A stolen Tesla Model S caught fire when it crashed into a light pole in West Hollywood.
- November 3, 2016. A Tesla Model S crashed into a tree and burst into flames in Indianapolis, Indiana, killing the driver and a passenger.
- May 8, 2018. An 18-year-old lost control of his Tesla Model S and hit a light pole. The collision caused the battery pack to ignite. The driver and passenger died in the crash and subsequent fire.
- April 17, 2021. Two men were killed in Houston, Texas after a self-driving Tesla crashed into a tree and caused a battery fire. The crash is still being investigated.
Why do Tesla batteries catch fire?
Tesla’s electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which are a relatively new technology to the auto industry. Lithium-ion batteries are much more powerful than traditional lead-acid batteries but also carry a larger safety risk.
Every Tesla battery is made up of thousands of cells, which are configured into the modules that make up a battery pack. Tesla batteries typically catch fire when a single cell is damaged—whether the damage is the result of an impact or a manufacturing defect. When one cell is damaged, it can overheat and cause a chain reaction that causes a fire (a process called thermal runaway).
Are electric cars safe?
Currently, electric cars make up fewer than 1% of cars on the road in the United States. But large auto manufacturers, including General Motors, are making a push to eliminate gasoline cars by 2035.
This begs the question:
Are electric cars safe?
According to Tesla’s safety data, there has been about 1 vehicle fire for every 205 million miles traveled. In comparison, the national average is roughly 1 fire for every 19 million miles traveled.
Supporters of Tesla and other electric cars point to this data to help make the argument that a gasoline-powered car is 11 times more likely to catch fire than a Tesla. Critics, however, argue that these numbers don’t tell the whole picture because most Tesla’s are new and significantly younger than the average gasoline-powered car.
According to the results of an in-depth report produced for the NHTSA:
"The propensity and severity of fires and explosions from lithium-ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels," but “the technology and industry have not matured sufficiently to have established comprehensive safety codes and standards that mitigate risks.”
When discussing electric car safety, the focus is often on whether or not electric cars are more likely than gasoline-powered cars to catch fire. However, experts warn that electric cars may be more dangerous after they catch fire.
Lithium-ion batteries can burn for hours and often reignite later. Harris County Constable Mark Herman, who was on the scene for the April 2021 Houston Tesla fire, reported that it took firefighters 4 hours and more than 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish the battery fire, something he said firefighters would normally have controlled in a matter of minutes.
Legal options for Tesla battery fire victims
If you or a loved one suffered damages as a result of your Tesla’s battery catching on fire, you might be able to receive compensation by filing a product liability lawsuit.
The law recognizes 3 types of defects that can lead to a product liability lawsuit:
- Manufacturing defect. A defectively manufactured product is one that—though properly designed—left the manufacturer in a condition other than intended.
- Design defect. A product is defectively designed if it fails to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect, even when used as intended (or at least in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable).
- Failure to warn. Vehicle manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers that can be reasonably anticipated and that are inherent in their products.
Product liability claims are typically based on negligence or strict liability.
Negligence-based defective product claims
In a product liability case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care (car manufacturers owe a duty of care to all potential users),
- The defendant breached the duty of care, and
- The defendant's breach caused the plaintiff's injuries.
Defective product cases based on strict liability
In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The product was sold in an "unreasonably dangerous" condition,
- The unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the product left the defendant's control, and
- The dangerous condition caused the plaintiff's injuries.
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