When a series of fires and explosions forced Samsung to recall almost 2.5 million units of its Galaxy Note 7 models at an estimated cost of a billion dollars, the last thing in the world it wanted was to have one of its new ‘safe’ replacement handsets catch fire. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday, and in the worst possible circumstances: on board an airliner.

The only saving grace for Samsung was that the aircraft was still at the gate. Had it been in flight at the time, things could obviously have been very much worse.

However, while the news is grim, we do need to be a little careful about jumping to conclusions …

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Lithium batteries, like anything else, have a failure rate. That rate is extremely low – around 1 in 10 million – but when they do fail, they can do so in rather spectacular ways. While some provide warning by ‘inflating,’ others simply burst into flames.

This happens to a small number of phones of all brands. Statistically, when you hit 10 million sales, one of them is pretty much guaranteed to catch fire. And while Samsung may be only a quarter of the way there with replacement Note 7 devices, that still gives you a one in four chance that one of them somewhere out there will catch fire.

It happens to iPhones – including some on planes. Again, the stats say that when you have a billion active iOS devices, as Apple does, around 100 of them are going to catch fire. Zac Hall recently commented over on sister site 9to5Mac that one iPhone 7 fire does not a story make.

The same is true here. Yes, a replacement Galaxy Note 7 did catch fire. Yes, it has been confirmed that it was one of the ‘safe’ ones. And yes, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating the incident.

It’s possible that the worst-case scenario is true: that the fault that caused the fire in the previous devices is still present in the replacement ones. While random battery fires do happen, it’s unusual for them to happen to brand-new devices – such faults generally develop over time. If it does turn out to have the cause, the repercussions for Samsung would be enormous.

But as Ben Schoon alluded to yesterday, it’s also possible that this incident is nothing more than one of those random one in 10M fires that will always occur with lithium batteries – and is simply extremely bad timing for Samsung that it’s happened in a brand-new device. We’ll need to await the results of the various investigations to find out.

Southwest image: Skyvator

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