Bay Area wakes up to smoke in his house. The source: his laptop computer. Stephanie Chuang reports.
Frank Natale was deep in sleep when he said his Doberman woke up him with the loudest barks he’d ever heard.
"I cocked my head up and I started breathing all this black smoke, so I followed till we got to the kitchen," he said. "That’s where I came upon a bouncing demon. I don’t know what else to call it.”
That “bouncing demon” was his Hewlett-Packard laptop.
Natale said the last thing he did before going to bed was run some anti-virus software on his computer. The laptop was on the kitchen counter when flames broke out, sending a thick cloud of black smoke around his house at 5 a.m.
“I had all these little red droplets dropping everywhere,” Natale recalled. “It was catching on fire. The laptop was standing up on its side bouncing over to other side, and it was shooting out Roman candles like little missiles.”
Natale said it was the firefighters who responded to the fire at his Concord house in July 2011 who alerted him he wasn’t alone, referring him to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website. There, he and his wife discovered there were several recalls launched by HP and other companies.
According to the CPSC, HP was one of three companies using Sony’s lithium ion batteries that launched a voluntary recall in 2008, citing an overheating issue that posed a “fire and burn hazard to consumers.”
Elizabeth Boukis, a Sony spokesperson, said the company is still investigating the claim “and has not yet had an opportunity to examine the product(s) at issue."
"It would be premature for Sony to provide any conclusions or comments about this case without completing the investigation. Sony takes all reports or claims that could impact a potential safety issue very seriously, and this matter is no different.”
As for HP, the company has announced voluntary recalls almost every year between 2005 and 2011, involving more than half a million batteries worldwide.
Of those, there were 135 reports of overheating, 94 resulting in property damage, and 21 reported injuries, mostly burns. Catherine Greenlaw, an HP spokesperson, said the company sent recall notices to consumers who bought the items in question, and also put up posters in stores that announced the voluntary recall.
“If there was a recall on this, why are we finding out after our house almost burned down?” asked Frank's wife, Catherine Natale. The couple says it never got any letter or notice from HP about the recall, but was visited by someone with HP’s risk management who was there to follow-up and collect evidence.
“The risk management guy kind of got upset. He wanted to take it and say, 'Oh, Bye-Bye, all done,' ” Frank Natale. Risk management sent the Natales a letter in August 2011, asking for them to send the laptop to its engineering lab.
If they didn’t within the week, the letter said the case would be closed. Instead, the Natales’ insurance company advised the laptop to an independent forensic lab, EFI Global. Its final report concluded that nine of 12 lithium ion battery cells managed to break free from the battery pack’s plastic housing, and found that it was an empty, detached battery cell that underwent an internal failure, resulting in the overheating and subsequent laptop fire
HP agreed to pay a civil penalty of $425,000 in January 2012, after CPSC staff members alleged the company knowingly failed to immediately report that certain lithium-ion battery packs posed the overheating, fire and burn hazard to consumers.
The Natales said not only are they dealing with attorneys now after having to leave their Concord house for six months while clean-up crews made sure they could move back in, but are also having to visit pulmonary doctors multiple times a week after developing tracheal bronchitis.
“These little areas inside my lungs have been singed,” Frank Natale said. “You have these fibers in your lungs that catch the air. Mine had been damaged as though I’d smoked a lot.”
Catherine Natale added the two are driven to sound an alarm by warning other people and families about what she perceives as a real threat.
“You’re out of the room, that fire starts, the whole thing burns up, they can’t trace back to where it started and where the root of it was. So, I think this is happening a lot more than people have any idea. You just don’t have the proof.”
Greenlaw said HP is unable to comment on the Natales’ case, because it’s still pending, but added the following statement: “Customer service and safety are top priorities for HP. HP fully stands behind the products it makes and has taken a proactive approach to this situation to ensure the safety of our customers and the integrity and quality of our products.”
It’s not good enough for the Natales, who just got married a few years ago. “I’m not going to get over this,” said Catherine. “It took a long time to find each other and I don’t want to lose him. And I sure don’t want to lose him like this.”