Fire from battery pack in laptop: PC manufacturer found liable for defect
When charging a laptop with an AC adapter at home, a battery pack in the laptop ignited and fire broke out. The laptop user suffered damage from the fire. The user sued the PC manufacturer and claimed damages of about 6,600,000 yen under the Article 3 of the Product Liability Act. The court recognized that the battery pack had ignited suddenly while being charged although the consumer had used the laptop properly and found the manufacturer liable for the product defect because of a lack of safety that the product ordinarily should provide based on a de facto presumption (affirmed amount: about 700,000 yen).
(Judgement by the Tokyo District Court on March 19, 2019, published on LEX/DB)
Summary of the case
- X (consumer)
- Y (PC manufacturer)
1. Fire breakout and damage
No later than the day before the fire (in the middle of October 2015 or earlier), X bought the laptop manufactured by Y in May 2012. X started using the laptop at home in the middle of October 2015. When charging the laptop with an AC adapter, the fire broke out from a battery pack in the laptop. X suffered a third-degree burn injury on the left lower leg due to the fire. In addition to the laptop, a bed and a mattress on which the laptop was placed were burned. Incidentally, Y provided X with a substitute laptop and compensated for the bed and the mattress by paying an amount equivalent to the then value.
2. Issues and assertions of both parties
(1) Presence of defects or faults (Issue 1)
[Assertion of X]
X was using the laptop for a self-run business. Although X used and kept the laptop in an ordinary way, a fire suddenly broke out from the battery pack in the laptop. Therefore, the laptop lacked safety that the product ordinarily should provide.
[Assertion of Y]
Y has no intention to argue against the fact that the battery in the laptop ignited. In spite of Y's careful and thorough inspection of the battery pack, the cause of the ignition was not determined. Y does not recognize that the laptop had a defect. It cannot be confirmed that the battery pack lacked safety that the product ordinarily should provide just because the battery pack ignited. In addition, Y's illegal conduct has not been confirmed.
(2) X's damage (Issue 2)
[Assertion of X]
X suffered the following damage which amounts to about 6,600,000 yen.
- Property damage: about 100,000 yen
- A wall in X's bedroom at home was burned due to the fire. Since X is living in a rental unit, X will have to repair the damaged wall when moving out of the unit. It costs no less than 100,000 yen to replace the damaged wallpaper with new one.
- Loss due to absence from work: about 1,900,000 yen
- X runs a consulting company. The fire posed an obstacle to X's business. The loss due to absence from work amounts to about 1,900,000 yen.
- Pain and suffering: about 4,000,000 yen
- X incurred a third degree burn injury on the left lower leg and went to hospital ten times or so for more than one year. Scars and pain still remain. X need to have surgery to become fully cured. X experienced a nightmare that the laptop exploded. X lost important data kept in the laptop due to the fire. It took more than one month to restore the data. Since Y did not propose to pay for X's pain and suffering, X had to negotiate with Y about it. X had trusted the Japanese PC brand Q and thought X would be able to use the laptop safely, but Y betrayed X's trust. The fire would not have occurred if Y had decided to recall the products. Even after the fire, Y hesitated to extend the scope of products to be recalled and did not actively inform consumers of the product defect. Y does not seem repentant for the damage caused by the product defect. Therefore, the amount for pain and suffering should be no less than 4,000,000 yen.
- Legal fee: about 600,000 yen
[Assertion of Y]
Y decided to argue against all the X's claims.
1. Issue 1 (presence of defects or faults)
The court determined whether or not the product had a defect or fault as follows.
(1) Both parties recognize that the battery pack in the laptop ignited and fire broke out. Argument and evidence show the following. X carried and used the laptop for business on a daily basis. In the evening on the day before the fire in the middle of October 2015, X used the laptop as usual near the bed in the bedroom at home. After turning off the laptop, X charged the laptop with a brand-name AC adaptor. Around 7 a.m. on the day of the fire, X turned on the laptop and used it about one hour, checking incoming emails. X let the screen sleep and started to charge the laptop with the AC adaptor. Then, the battery pack suddenly ignited. In light of these factual findings, it should be said that X used the laptop properly, while there is not enough evidence to show that X used the laptop for a purpose different from the original one and treated it improperly. Although X used the laptop properly, the battery pack in the laptop, which is not expected to ignite in general, suddenly ignited and caused the fire. Therefore, it is recognized that the laptop lacked safety that the product ordinarily should provide. In light of the above findings, it is inferable that the laptop lacked safety that the product ordinarily should provide when the product was delivered to X. There is no evidence to reverse the inference.
(2) Y alleged that the cause of the fire had not been identified in spite of Y's careful and thorough inspection of the battery pack and that no defect had been found in the laptop. According to the evidence, Y found that the fire had come from the battery pack in the laptop, but the cause had not been identified. In light of the focus on "defect" in Article 3 of the Product Liability Act and the aim of the law to protect victims, it is construed that X is not responsible for identifying defective elements in the laptop nor demonstrating a scientific mechanism of the ignition of the battery pack when it is recognized that the battery pack in the laptop, which is not expected to ignite in general, ignited and caused fire although X was using the laptop properly. Incidentally, evidence shows that fire accidents occurred repeatedly from battery packs using battery cells produced within a certain period in a factory where battery cells of the above battery pack in the laptop were produced. In November 2017, the battery fire accidents including the above one amounted to ten. Then, the manufacturer recalled the products.
(3) Therefore, the laptop had a defect under Article 3 of the Product Liability Act
2. Issue 2 (X's damage)
The court construed individual categories of damage claimed by X as follows.
(1) Property damage
It has been recognized that the wallpaper in X's bedroom at home was partly burned, but it has not been recognized that the wall itself was damaged. X lives in a rental unit. The owner of the rental unit incurred damage of the wallpaper. Unless X has ordered repairing the wallpaper and paid for the repair work, X has not yet incurred the damage.
(2) Loss from absence from work
There is no evidence to show that X incurred loss from absence from work due to the fire.
(3) Pain and suffering
The following facts have been recognized. X suffered a third degree burn injury on the left lower leg in the fire. In addition, X suffered other mild burns on the right lower leg and fingers when extinguishing the fire. X went to hospital ten times between October 2015 and June 2017. A blackish brown scar remains on the left lower leg due to pigmentation, which is not categorized into 14th degree residual disability. Although it is not recognized that X's income decreased due to the fire, it is undeniable that X incurred certain damage. Therefore, certain consideration should be made in calculating the amount for pain and suffering.
There is no evidence to show that the fire was caused by Y's negligence in not extending the scope of products to be recalled. Even if there is such evidence, it does not cause the increase of the amount for pain and suffering. Incidentally, punitive damages cannot be awarded in Japan because they conflict with the Japanese basic compensation principle for damage caused by illegal conduct. It is proper to construe that the compensation for X's mental suffering is about 600,000 yen.
1. Product Liability Act and de facto presumption
This is a typical product liability case. X was using a Y manufactured laptop for daily business. A battery pack in the laptop suddenly ignited and fire broke out. Then, X filed a claim for damages against Y.
In the formulation of the Product Liability Act (established in 1994 and enforced in 1995), it was proposed that a product defect should be legally presumed when a consumer incurred serious damage although the product had been used ordinarily, because it might be extremely difficult for victims without product knowledge to prove a product defect, even if the requirements for product liability claims would be changed from a fault in manufacturing to a product defect. However, manufacturers opposed the proposal, alleging that it was inappropriate to shift the burden of proof to manufacturers in addition to changing the requirements for product liability claims from a fault in manufacturing to a product defect. Then, the above proposal was not adopted. Instead, it was proposed to alleviate victims' burden of proof by flexible use of a de facto presumption. A de facto presumption means to recognize a fact by applying a rule of thumb lying in the connection between cause and effect. It was proposed to alleviate victims' burden of proof, considering the gap of knowledge and experience between manufacturers and consumers and evidence they can obtain. A legal presumption of fact means to presume the existence of a requisite fact A when a premise B which can be proved more easily (in product liability context, "ordinary use" and "serious damage") has been proved, with the intention to hold the adverse party accountable for non-existence of fact A (in product liability context, "non-existence of defect").
In the above case, the court presumed a product defect when delivering the product as well as a product defect when the fire broke out based on a de facto presumption on the ground that a battery pack, which had been ordinarily used, ignited. Now nearly 30 years have passed from the establishment of the Product Liability Act. The above judgement was made based on the act's aim of protecting victims.
Incidentally, the reference precedents 1 and 2 are related to fire from a TV set and the reference precedent 3 is related to fire from a freezer. In each of these cases, the issue was tort liability rather than product liability. These precedents are regarded as leading cases based on a de facto presumption in the field of home appliances: in light of discussion on a de facto presumption in the formulation of the Product Liability Act, a product defect was factually presumed and manufacturer's fault was recognized based on a de facto presumption.
2. How to figure out damage
In the above case, the court denied that X had incurred the cost for replacing wall papers and also denied that X had incurred loss from absence from work because X's allegation was unproven. Under the Japanese compensation system for damage caused by illegal conduct, compensatory damages may be awarded to victims. The court denied the legitimacy of punitive damages in Japan because they conflict with the Japanese basic compensation policy for damage caused by illegal conduct.
In the US, on the other hand, punitive damages are often awarded to victims when products concerned have not been fully recalled. In case of traffic accident in Japan, if an assailant's behavior toward a victim has increased the victim's emotional distress, the amount for pain and suffering may be increased.
3. Comment on reference precedents
The following summarizes four precedents where judgments were made in light of discussion on a de facto presumption in the formulation of the Product Liability Act.
The reference precedent 1 is related to fire from a TV set. The fire broke out just eight months after the TV set had been manufactured. Based on a de facto presumption, a product defect and the manufacturer's fault were presumed.
The reference precedent 2 is also related to fire from a TV set. Unlike the reference precedent 1, the fire broke out about seven years after the TV set had been manufactured. Based on a de facto presumption, the manufacturer was found liable for tort because manufacturers are responsible for ensuring product safety.
The reference precedent 3 is related to fire from a professional freezer in a restaurant and residence. It was presumed that the fire had occurred from the freezer. The court judged that the fire had been predictable for the manufacturer unless the manufacturer proved it had been unpredictable even after thorough research and study. The manufacturer was found liable for the damage.
In the reference precedent 4, a PC manufacturer was found liable for a product defect.
- Judgment by the Osaka District Court on March 29, 1994
(page 29 of Hanrei Jihou No.1493)
- Judgment by the Osaka District Court on September 18, 1997
(page 166 of Hanrei Times No.992)
- Judgment by the Tokyo District Court on August 31, 1999
(page 39 of Hanrei Jihou No.1687)
- Judgment by the Kobe District Court on March 24, 2015