Product Liability And Product Improvement


A recent jury verdict in Santa Clara, California for $17 million
on behalf of a brain damaged bicycle rider against Bell Helmet Company
was a wake up call for bicycle helmet manufacturers, and disturbing
news for those of us who wear a helmet when we ride to protect ourselves
from head injuries.

Just the other day, I was presenting a bicycle safety program including
a nice little video entitled “The Bicycle Zone” to my daughter’s
second grade class. I was talking about how I represent many injured
bicycle riders and have seen at least a dozen instances where a
helmet had saved a rider from serious injury in a collision with
a motor vehicle. “Wear your helmet” is often the last thing I say
to one of my kids when I see them heading out for a bike ride, and
it always makes me feel more secure when I strap on my helmet before
swinging my leg over the top tube and heading out. Now it appears
that bicycle helmets may not give us the protection we expected.

Long time bicyclists may share my observation that bicycle helmets
have gotten smaller and smaller over the years. The original hard
shell helmets were converted climbers’ helmets. When the bulky Bell
Biker came out with the vented top, it was a real innovation. Since
those early days, helmets have emerged which have many large air
vents and a much smaller profile or silhouette. It is interesting
to note that while “high performance” bicycle helmets have gotten
smaller over the years, the same grade of motorcycle helmets have
gone in the complete opposite direction, with chin bars and extensive
coverage of the face and back of the neck. Unfortunately, part of
the reason bicycle helmets have gotten so small relates to style
and fashion, rather than performance-based improvement of design.

Sometimes the only way a manufacturer has incentive to improve
a poor product design is when it gets hit with a jury verdict finding
that its product has a major safety defect. In the Santa Clara case
an experienced rider with a Bell Oasis Pro bicycle helmet was in
a collision with a left turning car in a low speed accident, a common
type of accident. His helmeted head hit the “A pillar” of the automobile,
leaving a clear impact mark on the left side of the helmet above
the left ear. Post-accident analysis placed the impact speed at
only between 9-12 mph. However, because of the design of the helmet,
it failed to protect the most vulnerable area of the rider’s skull,
the lateral temporal temple bone which fractured, causing transsection
of the middle meningeal artery and residual epidural bleeding, with
resulting brain damage.

Scientific analysis of the helmet revealed that the geometry of
the design failed to protect the thinnest and most vulnerable portion
of the skull. While the helmet was defended by the manufacturer
as being in compliance with safety standards, such “standards” provide
only a minimum level of impact protection and energy dispersion.
Most riders do not realize that the helmet standards do not require
that the entire surface of the helmet absorb the required level
of energy, only the portion above an invisible “test line” which
is one to two inches above the bottom edge of the helmet. If a rider
has an impact in an accident which is below the area required to
be tested by the “standards,” the helmet may not provide sufficient
protection to prevent an injury.

It has been known for years by the helmet industry that the majority
of head impacts occur below the “test line,” and that the majority
of injurious impacts are concentrated in the front or temporal region.
While the helmet industry knows that studies have shown that something
less than 5 percent of impacts occur at the crown of the helmet
where the protection afforded by the helmet is greatest (where the
helmet is thickest), it almost appears as if helmets are designed
to meet the test standards, instead of protecting the head of the
purchaser. Further, the new “cut away” profile helmets do little
to protect riders from skull fractures at the base of the skull
or low-level side impacts.

While industry claims that their helmets comply with the “standards”
are technically correct, these standards include the ASTM (American
Society for Testing & Materials) standards adopted in large measure
by the Consumer Product Safety Act, which are intended to encourage
innovation and improvement while setting only a minimum base line
for safety. In the last several years, it appears that bicycle helmet
manufacturers are competing with each other to see who can make
the tiniest helmet, not the safest head protection for consumers.

Ironically, the retailer’s catalog for the helmet product line
which included the Oasis Pro boasted:

“We know of no safer bike helmet on the planet. There. We said
it. Call the lawyers. Check it out. We’re not worried. But wait,
is that really important? Aren’t all helmets ‘safe enough’? Consider
this: there has never been a legal judgment against Bell from
one of our bike helmets.”

Well now there is a judgment against Bell for a bike helmet, and
the jury in the Santa Clara case recognized that not all are “safe
enough.” Satisfaction of minimum standards that are not true performance
standards (but instead only measure certain areas on a helmet which
are not involved in the majority of head injury accidents) is not
sufficient for making a product safe enough for use on the streets.
The Santa Clara case served as a wake up call to an entire industry
that something more than satisfaction of minimal standards is necessary
to protect riders from injury. Next time you strap on your helmet
think about how it has to protect your head, your whole head and
not just the part that is above the “test line.” The Santa Clara
jury’s work in holding the helmet manufacturer responsible for a
preventable brain injury provides a financial, as well as a moral
incentive, to the helmet industry to create a safer helmet design
with a larger zone of protection.