When Your Amazon Purchase Explodes
Nicholas Jones didn’t think twice about purchasing a lithium-ion battery from Amazon in 2016. Like most Americans, he was used to ordering whatever he needed on the site and having it show up at his front door days later. So when his laptop’s battery stopped working, Jones, then a graduate student, went online, found a replacement HP battery for about $15, and bought it.
A few nights later, he was sitting on the couch in his Buffalo, New York, apartment when he heard a sound like a gunshot. His fiancée screamed. The lithium-ion battery in the laptop sitting next to him had ignited, setting his couch on fire. Battery cells were flying all over the living room, leaking acid. “It was like a war zone,” Jones told me. Later, he was treated for first-degree and chemical burns. His computer and hardwood floor were destroyed.
Curious about what had happened, Jones went back online to try to contact the seller and alert Amazon to the problem. Scrolling through reviews, he realized other buyers were reporting fires from the same item. But Amazon seemed unconcerned, he told me: Customer-service representatives treated his report like a new one each time he called, asking for his name, the order number, and the story of what had happened over and over again. Amazon would not put him in touch with the seller and never assumed blame for the fire.
“They weren’t even like, ‘We’ll get to the bottom of it,’” he told me. “It was, ‘We’ll put you on hold for 45 minutes until you get annoyed and hang up.’” He eventually stopped trying for a response; he was in the middle of an exam period and had other things on his mind. “I was a little naive. I thought, This billion-dollar entity—they’ll at least cover my losses. What did I really expect? It is a big company, and they treated me like a big company.” (Amazon declined to answer specific questions about Jones’s allegations.)
Jones had unwittingly collided with one of e-commerce’s strangest and most vexing truths: In the massive global network of manufacturers, distributors, sellers, and resellers, it can be nearly impossible to tell who’s actually responsible for getting any given product into your living room. Even when it sets your couch on fire.
The battery that exploded on Jones was a lithium-ion cell, a type that’s highly efficient, increasingly common, and, as it turns out, occasionally flammable when overheated or punctured. Poor design can heighten the risk—a particular danger as companies race to pack more and more power into smaller batteries and cheaper devices. “When you are pushing a battery to its limits,” said Nadim Maluf, the CEO of the battery-software company Qnovo, “the margin of error is extremely thin.”
The inherent economics of the battery industry make things even worse. Many lithium-ion batteries are produced in China—where it can be difficult to monitor what materials are used and whether corners have been cut in the manufacturing process—and by companies that are working quickly to avoid copycats, which can lead to unclear instructions and botched construction. “We are seeing a ton of batteries manufactured in China that are terribly made, completely unsafe … rushed to be placed on the market,” said Greg Bentley, an attorney who has worked on more than 20 lithium-ion explosion cases. Many shoddily made batteries are also counterfeit, meaning they bear the name of a trusted brand even if they were made by an entirely different company.