New York Owners Must Go Beyond a New Law to Prevent E-Bike Fires

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On any given night, a hungry New Yorker will pull up their favorite food delivery app and place an order.

Within minutes, a delivery driver will arrive with the food and a miracle of modern technology will have satisfied one person’s hunger for at least one more night.

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But what the hungry New Yorker perhaps does not fully appreciate is that the same technology powering their phone also powered the delivery driver’s e-bike: a lithium-ion battery. And they may also be unaware that lithium-ion batteries are a leading cause of fatal fires in New York City.

In 2022, there were 220 fires started by lithium-ion batteries in New York City, causing six deaths. So far this year, we’ve seen 87 injuries and 13 deaths in Manhattan, including four deaths and two injuries in a Chinatown apartment fire when an e-bike battery purportedly exploded in the repair store below.

In an effort to contain the scourge of deadly e-bike fires, New York’s Local Law 39 will go into effect on Sept. 16, 2023, prohibiting the sale, lease or rental of e-bikes, and their batteries, that do not meet standards set forth by the Underwriters Laboratories or other standards established in consultation with the Fire Department of the City of New York.

While landlords may welcome any legislative action aimed at curbing these deadly blazes, they cannot rely on Local Law 39 alone to prevent all property damage or injuries associated with such fires.

The law may put parameters on the new stock of e-bikes being sold in New York City shops, but there are an estimated 65,000 e-bikes already traversing the five boroughs. Rounding up the old bikes that may thereafter fall below the new standards is impractical.

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Lawrence Luppi. Photo: Coffey Modica

In August, several major international e-bike manufacturers either filed for bankruptcy or issued warnings about their ability to remain in business. This can result in greater opportunity for older, vintage bikes to fall into disrepair, as warranties evaporate and sources for replacement parts dry up.

Without access to proper customer support, someone who spent valuable money on such a bike, only to find that the battery is just not holding a charge, may have no choice but to log onto the Internet to buy what they think is a replacement battery that fits. What few understand is that while it might fit the device, the voltage may not be compatible. The result may eventually set a home or building ablaze.

And with many lithium-ion batteries being imported, it is also important to note that obtaining jurisdiction over the battery manufacturers is far from a sure thing.

As FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh explained in the spring, lithium-ion fires are “not a slow burn; there’s not a small amount of fire, it literally explodes.” In addition, the fires are “very difficult to extinguish” and therefore “particularly dangerous.”

When deliveries became an essential service during COVID, this spurred the city’s legalization of e-bikes and scooters. Outside of relying on Local Law 39 or waiting for the state legislature to institute a wholesale prohibition on owning or using e-bikes, property owners have limited means to protect their buildings or their occupants from these devices.

Until a more comprehensive solution is reached, building owners would be wise to pay attention to the storage and charging of e-bikes inside their facilities, and some have even decided to ban e-bikes or their batteries within residential and commercial buildings. The New York City Public Housing Authority initially proposed a complete ban on battery-powered bikes because of the fire risk, but reconsidered after residents who use the devices for work and as a method of transportation complained.

To strike a balance between these competing interests, Mayor Eric Adams and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer secured a $25 million grant to install electric charging hubs at several housing facilities.

An estimated 112 million Americans reported using food delivery in 2020, and the industry is still going strong today, with food delivery expected to be a $32 billion industry by 2024. Those deliveries in a metropolitan region like our own will happen using e-bikes. Landlords and property owners must be aware of this ongoing threat that appears not to be going away.

Larry Luppi is a litigator and a partner at Coffey Modica representing insurers and their insureds.