Stephen Gutierrez is a Miami lawyer whose pants caught on fire while he was finishing up an arson trial on March 9. Gutierrez, who was representing a man police said purposefully set his car on fire, was making his closing arguments to the jury at the time. The jurors were rushed out of the courtroom and Gutirrez was not harmed. Gutierrez insisted that he did not purposefully start the fire.
Here’s a look at the bizarre scene.
1. Gutierrez Blamed the Fire on a Faulty E-Cigarette Battery
Witnesses told the Miami Herald that smoke could be seen coming from his right pocket. He then rushed out of the courtroom, later followed by the jurors. When he returned unharmed, he insisted that this was not a stunt and blamed it on a faulty e-cigarette battery.
“It was surreal,” one witness told the Herald. “A lot of people could have been hurt,” another added.
The 28-year-old Gutierrez later sent a statement to The Miami New Times that reads:
Shortly after beginning my argument, I noticed that my pocket began to feel hot. When I checked my pocket, I noticed that the heat was coming from a small e-cigarette battery I had in my pocket. I noticed the heat was intensifying, and left the courtroom as quickly as possible – straight into the bathroom. I was able to toss the battery in water after it singed my pocket open.
Once again, he said that this was not done on purpose.
2. He Was Representing Claudy Charles, Who Was Accused of Setting His Car on Fire
As the Herald notes, Gutierrez’s client was 48-year-old Claudy Charles, who was charged with setting his car on fire on purpose in South Miami-Dade. Gutierrez argued that his client’s car spontaneously combusted.
The jury didn’t buy that argument, and they convicted Charles of second-degree arson.
Of course, that’s not the only problem Gutierrez faces, as Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman could hold him in contempt of court. The case is under investigation.
3. E-Cigarettes Are Still Unregulated & Not FDA Approved
Despite their popularity, e-cigarettes remain unregulated, notes PublicHealth.org. They are not even FDA approved.
According to PublicHealth.org, they work by delivering pure nicotine “without deliberately added chemicals and carcinogens.” They are supposed to be a safer way of getting a nicotine fix, without the same impact of traditional cigarettes. As that site explains:
Nicotine in liquid form is contained in a tiny cylinder that also holds a heating device. The cylinder is attached to a battery that, when triggered by the inhalation of air, activates the heating device. In a split second, a drop of liquid nicotine is vaporized by the heat and carried directly into the lungs. This heated gas carries not only the nicotine craved by the brain but also the “throat hit,” the sensation felt in the back of the throat when smoking a cigarette. For some users, the throat hit is an essential part of smoking, and is something not delivered by other forms of nicotine intake.
Recent studies have questioned the health risks of using e-cigarettes though. In December 2016, the FDA did announce new regulations for e-cigarettes and other tobacco products, but these haven’t been put into effect yet. The FDA said it will regulate e-cigarettes in the same way they regulate traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
While the FDA regulations have been slow to come into force, local governments have taken action. The Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Council approved a ban on e-cigarettes at indoor public places, food establishments and work places. The Chicago Tribune reports that North Chicago officials are considering making it illegal for anyone under 21 to buy them.
4. The FDA Says There Were 134 Incidents of E-Cigarette Batteries Overheating from 2009 to 2016
In January 2016, the FDA announced that it found 134 incidents in the U.S. that involved e-cigarette batteries overheating, catching fire or even exploding, CNN reports. In April, the agency will host a public workshop to discuss e-ciagette safety concerns.
“We remain concerned about the adverse events associated with the use of these products as reported in the news,” Michael Felberbaum, a spokesman for the FDA, told CNN.
The e-cigarette industry has put the blame for these incidents on the consumers. Ray Story, CEO of Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, told CNN that many of the cases involve consumers mishandling vaping devices.
“The battery itself was carried in pocket, and that pocket contained either multiple batteries as well as change, a set of keys and other metal objects that shorted that battery out,” Story told CNN. “That’s not the fault of the battery. It’s the fault of the retailer and ultimately the lack of knowledge of the consumer that causes these accidents.”
But even Gutierrez thinks there should be regulations.
“After careful research, I now know this can happen. I am not the only one this has happened to, but I am in a position to shed light on the situation,” he told the Miami New Times. “E-cigarette accessories can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing regulation in the industry is much-needed. However, much more is needed. The dangers of these devices, and accessories, have led me to quit using e-cigarette products. ”
5. Gutierrez Works for His Father’s Law Firm in Mimai
Gutierrez works at his father’s law firm in Miami, according to attorney Julio Gutirrez’s website. He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting at Florida State University.
In 2015, Gutierrez graduated from Florida International University College of Law. His father is a graduate of the University of Houston and has been practicing law in Miami for 25 years.