Button Battery Hazards for Children & Related Legal Claims
Button batteries power many common household products, ranging from remote controls to thermometers. Sometimes they appear in products specifically designed for children, such as toys and games. Since these batteries are small, round, and shiny, they may attract the attention of children. They may swallow these batteries or put them in the nose or ear. Generally, a child who swallows a button battery will pass the battery in their stool, but sometimes a battery will get lodged in the esophagus rather than proceeding to the stomach.
An electrical current can form around a battery that is caught in the esophagus, producing an alkaline chemical called hydroxide. A child may suffer severe tissue burns that may damage the esophagus, vocal cords, airway, and blood vessels. Complications from these incidents may prove fatal or cause long-term injuries. There is no way to know whether a particular battery will pass through the esophagus, so swallowing a button battery is always a medical emergency.
Federal Standards for Button Batteries
Nose or Ear
A battery in the nose or ear also may cause permanent injuries and requires medical attention.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in the summer of 2022 that is meant to reduce the risk of children ingesting button batteries. This law is known as Reese’s Law after an 18-month-old child who died from ingesting a remote control battery. Reese’s Law requires the Consumer Product Safety Commission to devise safety standards for button batteries, including specific requirements for warning labels. These labels must clearly identify the hazard of ingestion and instruct consumers to keep new and used batteries out of the reach of children and to seek immediate medical attention if a battery is ingested. These warnings must be included:
On the packaging of batteries and the packaging of a consumer product that contains them
In any literature, such as a user manual, accompanying a consumer product containing button batteries
If possible, directly on a consumer product containing these batteries in a manner that is visible to the consumer upon installing or replacing the battery, or in a manner that is visible to the consumer upon access to the battery compartment if the battery for the product is not intended to be replaced or installed by the consumer
In addition, the compartments of consumer products containing these batteries must be secured in a manner that would eliminate or adequately reduce the risk of injuries from ingestion by children who are six years old or younger. Reese’s Law also requires child-resistant packaging for button batteries. Certain toy products that comply with other federal requirements for battery accessibility and labeling are exempt from this law.
Responding to Ingestion of a Button Battery
If a child has swallowed a button battery, their parents should call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline (800-498-8666) and provide the battery identification number if possible. This may appear on the package or a matching battery. Medical providers can conduct an X-ray to determine whether the battery has passed through the esophagus. No intervention may be needed if the battery has entered the stomach, but a battery that has become lodged in the esophagus should be removed as soon as possible.
A parent should not try to make their child vomit the battery. They also should not give their child anything to eat or drink (except possibly honey) until the battery has been confirmed to have passed through the esophagus. After this has been confirmed, parents should monitor their child for fever, vomiting, or abdominal pain. These symptoms may warrant an investigation into whether the battery has caused a blockage of the intestines, which may require surgery. Parents should keep monitoring their child’s stool to make sure that the battery is eventually eliminated.
Consider Using Honey
Giving honey to a child at least 12 months old who swallowed a button battery can slow the progression of the injury as the child travels to the hospital. However, swallowing a battery is still a medical emergency.
Lawsuits Based on Button Batteries
Multiple types of legal claims may arise from injuries to children who swallowed button batteries. One type is a product liability claim against a manufacturer. This might involve arguing that the manufacturer failed to provide appropriate warnings to consumers about the risks posed by the battery. Alternatively, parents might be able to argue that the compartment containing the battery was defectively designed because it made the battery too easily accessible to a child. If this claim succeeds, the manufacturer may need to pay compensation for the costs incurred by the parents in treating the medical emergency, as well as the child’s pain and suffering.
Meanwhile, parents may have a medical malpractice claim if a health care provider fails to appropriately diagnose and treat a child who swallows a button battery. A failure to properly conduct and interpret X-rays, for example, could severely worsen a child’s prognosis because time is of the essence in these situations. Parents would need to show that a competent health care provider in the defendant’s field would have acted differently under the circumstances.
Both product liability and medical malpractice claims are more complex than the average personal injury claim. Plaintiffs may need to retain expert witnesses and comply with nuanced procedural rules. Thus, parents likely should consult an attorney if they are considering suing a manufacturer or a doctor for their child’s injuries.