The Case of the Beneficial Barristers

DN Staff

August 18, 2003

3 Min Read
The Case of the Beneficial Barristers

Plaintiff's lawyers have a bad reputation. They are blamed-rightly or wrongly-for a range of societal ills, especially skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates and the subsequent flight of physicians from high insurance cost states or even from the practice of medicine itself. Not all this bad reputation is deserved. Take ladders, for instance.

Mankind used wooden ladders for millennia until the advent of inexpensive aluminum alloys, which are stronger, lighter, and stiffer than wood, plus they don't rot, and are readily extruded into a huge variety of cross sections.

Aluminum ladder use was uneventful until about forty years ago when a materials price increase caused the side rails to be redesigned. Users came falling out of the sky like hailstones, often with dire consequences. My first forensic case was a 20-ft aluminum ladder with buckled side rails. Nothing wrong with the metal, but a structural engineer found that if the ladder skewed, as may occur during normal use, a rail would buckle. But what engineer would design a ladder that was unstable to buckling?

Some years later a man sent his wife to buy a 30-ft wooden ladder. The clerk talked her into an aluminum ladder which he claimed would "... support twice your husband's weight." The husband in question was a former Boston College football lineman. He climbed to the top of the ladder (once), but came down unassisted, much to his detriment.

It was in this case that I saw promotional material from a major aluminum producer which claimed that the same extrusions were appropriate for 14-, 20- and 28-ft ladders. This document provided the smoking gun as the manufacturer's claim is ridiculous. The required weight of aluminum (for a given rail height) is likely to vary at least linearly with length. Thus, if the section were adequate for 28 ft, it was much too heavy for 14 ft. If the section were just adequate for 14 ft, it was much too light for 28 ft.

In my last ladder case I was retained by the defense. The calculations which had been adequate for plaintiffs' cases were not enough here. Proving theoretically that the ladder WAS safe in all foreseeable circumstances was beyond the resources of the defense case.

Standards for aluminum ladders gave no consideration to axial or dynamic loads. The standards seemed inadequate and unlikely to be convincing in a court of law, especially in the presence of a seriously injured plaintiff.

A mechanical engineer and I obtained exemplar ladders for testing to failure. We extended a ladder fully, placed the base at twice the recommended distance from the wall, placed twice the design weight on the far left of the same middle rung, and finally shook the ladder to simulate dynamic loading. The ladder did not fail, but took on a frightening lateral bow. It was only by exacerbating the misuse by unhooking the hook nearest the double load and repeating the above loading and shaking that the ladder finally popped a flange. That was one heck of a good ladder.

I retained the 10-ft "good" section from the initial ladder but find it too "whippy" to use. I also retained an exemplar of the last ladder and use it with confidence, even though I am above the load limit. It is a hugely improved ladder. The rails and rungs are much heavier. The rungs are D-shaped and solidly crimped into the rail so that the ladder acts as a compound beam. If an interested reader is in the Boston area we can arrange an inspection of the ladders.

I submit that it was the cost of the financial settlements produced by the plaintiffs' lawyers and their experts that chased the underweight aluminum ladders off the market. I have not heard of very many collapsed aluminum ladder in recent years. In this case the plaintiffs' lawyers, or in British terminology, barristers, were clearly beneficial.

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