Some years ago a six-year old West Virginia girl was riding a 20-inch two-wheel bike on a sidewalk and took a spill. Spills are common for young bike riders, but this one was different. The steering spoke, a tube that connects the handlebars to the front fork, came completely out of the fork. The girl took a nasty header and broke both sides of her lower jaw. Worse yet, she broke the jaw in the growth area so that it did not grow with the rest of the girl. The jaw could not be re-broken and extended to normal dimensions until the girl neared full growth. She grew up taking the abuse that children lavish on a child who is "different."
Fortunately for the girl, her father was a friend of an excellent lawyer in the area, who in turn was a long time client of mine. He did mostly insurance work, but he knew the local lawyers well. He got the best plaintiff's lawyer in the area involved in the case.
How this plaintiff's lawyer chose his field is a story in itself. He graduated from law school and went job hunting in the metropolitan area where he grew up. No firm would hire him because he was Jewish. His response was to go into business on his own and build a hugely successful practice in plaintiff's law. He and my colleague frequently faced one another in court where they reveled in beating the bejazus out of one another. In the words of Shakespeare, they would "Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends."
I was flown in with a mechanical engineer to help the plaintiff lawyer prepare to take the depositions of the bicycle manufacturer's experts. The bicycle has been carefully protected over the 10 years since the accident, so was as it was immediately after the accident.
The spoke was supposed to have been brazed into the fork over a distance of about a half inch. There is no way that such a joint could have failed during use. The most violent collision would have bent a properly brazed fork backward, perhaps breaking it or the steering spoke. Neither the spoke nor the fork was deformed at all.
I examined the mating parts with my unaided eye and with a 10× hand lens. There was brazing material on only a small part of the spoke. The joint was hugely defective.
A deposition forces the other side in a case to put its cards on the table. The attorney is entitled to ask the most detailed questions of opposing experts regarding their qualifications and their actions and knowledge of the case. Many cases settle on the basis of information disclosed at depositions. I have had my deposition taken perhaps five times for every court appearance.
The mechanical engineer and I spent two very long days feeding the lawyer questions to ask of the company experts. The lawyer filled page after page of legal pad with these questions. Then he proceeded to quiz the opposing experts for another long day. Not once did he refer to the pad. Finally he handed the pad to me and the mechanical engineer to see if he had missed anything. He had not!
The lawyer maneuvered the company quality control man into such a corner that he had to admit that every brazed fork was supposed to be picked up and examined visually. The brazing material was supposed to have flowed around the spoke inboth places where it emerged from the fork. There was no such flow; someone had screwed up. I suspect that either the inspector was inattentive or the fork was brazed at the end of a shift and never inspected.
The company lawyer started talking settlement toward the end of the deposition. The case settled for nearly the full amount of the plaintiff's demand.
Ken Russell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor Emeritus of Metallurgy and Nuclear Engineering at MIT. He specializes in physical metallurgy, forensic metallurgy, and failure analysis. Cases presented here are drawn from his actual forensic files.
To view the complete Calamities case files, click