Tag: product liability

ElectronicsEngineeringExpert Witness

eScooters Recalled Due to Battery Fire Risk: Expert Witness Analysis

In the last week, we learned of a recall involving eScooters. This recall came from Lime, an eScooter and eBike manufacturer. However, this is not the first concern about the safety of eScooters and Lime is not the only manufacturer facing consumer safety concerns.

In big cities throughout the world, transportation is being rapidly impacted by more advanced options than those we typically think about: cars, bikes, and public transportation.

Technologies’ rapid advancement combined with the nightmare of slow-moving automobiles and fighting for parking spaces has made Segways and other eScooters an efficient, environmentally friendly, and fun alternative to normal modes of transportation.

San Francisco is 90 miles from our office. On a good day it takes about 2 hours to make it to the city. Upon arriving, I typically want to find a parking place and avoid getting in the car for the remainder of my time in the city. From my interactions, I am not alone in this feeling. In fact, eScooters are a nice alternative to walking around the city and one I plan on trying in the not too distant future. It will allow me to go greater distances in the city, while being fun (because scooters are fun), and I won’t have to fight the traffic in San Francisco.

As with all consumer products and consumer electronics, especially those new to the market, we start to hear stories about the injuries caused and the safety concerns about the new products. eScooter solutions do not appear to be free from these concerns.

Powered by electronics and lithium-ion batteries, we have learned of the potential for fires related to these scooters. You may recall the “hoverboard” fires from a year or two ago. The hoverboards (self-balancing scooters) were a “hot” purchase at Christmastime and then they experienced recalls as a result of battery failures and battery fires.

Again, these recalls are pretty common for consumer products and from my perspective, companies seem to have drastically improved their response to safety issues and rapidly deploy recalls. I seem to see a recall announcement weekly. It is wise to recall a product and prove your company is proactive regarding customer safety. The alternative today, is suffering the Internet-based attacks for failure to do so. Those attacks are likely to be followed by product liability litigation if your customers are injured.

Lime eScooter Recall:

Last week, I read that Lime had recalled some of their scooters from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe. TechCrunch, among other news outlets, covered the story. The pertinent part of the story is below, some of which was pulled directly from Lime’s blog:

“‘In several isolated instances, a manufacturing defect could result in the battery smoldering or, in some cases, catching fire,’ Lime wrote on its blog. ‘We took this issue very seriously. Immediately upon learning of the defect, we worked with Segway Ninebot to create a software program to detect the potentially affected batteries. We then worked independently to create an even more thorough software program to ensure that no potentially faulty scooters remained in circulation. When an affected battery was identified — with a red code — we promptly deactivated the scooter so that no members of the public could ride or charge it.’

Lime says it then removed those scooters from circulation and ‘at no time were riders or members of the public put at risk.’ But fast-forward to more ‘recently,’ and Lime has received another report that one of its Segway Ninebot scooters may be vulnerable to battery failure. In total, Lime says less than 0.01 percent of its scooter fleet is affected.”

Given the issues with the hoverboards and now eScooters, I wanted to get a better understanding of the issues impacting electronic scooters and the batteries, as the thread that seems to hold all these stories together, is the lithium-ion batteries.

As such, I reached out to one of our experts for his insights on the matter.

Mechanical Engineering, Medical Device and Consumer Product Expert Witness Dr. T. Kim Parnell:

T. Kim Parnell, PhD, PE, is a Professional Mechanical Engineering consultant with strong experience in a number of technology areas. He holds PhD and MSME degrees from Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering and a BES from Georgia Tech. He specializes in the mechanical engineering design and behavior of Biomedical Devices, Superelastic and Shape Memory Metals (Nitinol), Bioabsorbable Polymers, Composites, Fiber-Reinforced Materials, Electronics, and Consumer Products. Dr. Parnell consults actively in these areas using finite element analysis and other advanced technologies to improve designs, to perform failure analysis, and to improve reliability. To learn more about Dr. Parnell, please visit his website: http://parnell-eng.com/.

Nick: In consumer electronics-based batteries, are their common battery defects that may result in smoldering or the battery catching fire?

Dr. Parnell: Yes, there are several failure modes that can ultimately lead to smoke or fire.

External damage is one mechanism that can lead to failure and smoke or fire. By breaching the external battery package, the reactive internal contents will be exposed to air and moisture.

The failure modes generally involve heat and overheating of the battery in some way.

Some of the heating mechanisms are:

  • External Short Circuit
  • Internal Short Circuit
  • Overcharge
  • Overdischarge
  • External Heating
  • Overheating (self-heating)

Each of these heating mechanisms may ultimately result in battery temperature becoming too high.

The elevated temperature leads to gas generation and additional generation of heat internal to the battery.

If this heat generation exceeds the ability to dissipate the heat, a thermal runaway may occur.

If a thermal runaway occurs, then it may be followed by

  • venting,
  • rupture of the battery container, and then potential
  • fire and explosion.

Nick: The article from TechCrunch explains one battery failed and another caught fire. Does a battery have to catch fire to fail?

Dr. Parnell: No.  Fire is basically an end failure mode.

Nick: Not just in the instance of these scooters, but more generally, is it possible for a battery to be damaged by the charging process rather than a manufacturing defect?

Dr. Parnell: Yes. The battery may be damaged by the charging process.  In particular if the battery is overcharged and if the charge rate remains high after the battery reaches full charge.

Nick: In the article, it seems Lime is able to monitor batteries and detect faulty batteries via software. Can you tell us, in general, how batteries are remotely monitored by consumer electronic companies?

Dr. Parnell: Battery internal temperature is one key parameter that can identify problems.  A temperature sensor from each battery cell can provide data that can be remotely monitored and also can be used locally to isolate a cell.

Nick: Can a battery truly be fixed with a software patch? Or, should the defective battery be removed from operation altogether?

Dr. Parnell: A mechanical battery problem cannot be “fixed” with a software patch.  A problem battery cell in a battery pack may be identified and electrically isolated.

That is what I’ve got for you this week. Although, it has been brought to my attention (thanks to Kevin Gillespie of TextALawyer), that another blog post about the safety issues in and around eScooter use may be necessary. Stay tuned, as there may be a Part 2.

 

Expert WitnessFood Safety

Pre-Cut Melon Salmonella Outbreak: Expert Witness Guidance to Avoid Infection

Certain parts of the United States were graced with a Salmonella outbreak over the weekend. We see these happen a couple of times a year (it probably happens more frequently than that, but a few outbreaks make the national news).

Over the last weekend, several states experienced the most recent outbreak. In fact, I didn’t read about it until Monday. Thanks to this article on Yahoo News, I learned the “U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sunday urged residents of eight U.S. states to check for recalled pre-cut melon that is linked to an outbreak of Salmonella.”

Pre-cut melon? Yes! Pre-cut melon (i.e. watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew, etc.). No deaths have been reported as of this writing. However, “The FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control are investigating an outbreak linked to 60 illnesses and at least 31 hospitalizations in five states,” according to Yahoo News. The company involved in the outbreak, Caito Foods, LLC, has recalled the suspected products. The products were distributed through eight states in the Midwestern and Southeastern United States. Over half of the reported Salmonella cases were located in Michigan.

Summer is here, melons are ripe, and pre-cut fruit snacks are heavily peddled at our local grocers and local barbecues. I decided to reach out to one of our food safety experts for some guidance on how to avoid Salmonella poisoning.

Jeff Nelken – Food Safety, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points Expert Witness:

Jeff Nelken, MA is a a food safety / HACCP expert witness with 40 years experience in the hospitality industry. He specializes in food safety, accident prevention, inspections, audits, and training. Mr. Nelken is a certified trainer and provider with the Los Angeles Health Department who has worked with CNN, FOX, CBS, NBC, INSIDE EDITION, and Dateline MSNBC’s investigation team, as well as restaurants, casinos, schools, supermarkets, and food manufacturers to provide food safety. You can learn more about his expertise at: foodsafetycoach.com.

Nick: What is Salmonella?

Mr. Nelken: Salmonella is the second most common intestinal infection in the United States. More than 7,000 cases of Salmonella were confirmed in 2009; however the majority of cases go unreported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 1 million people in the U.S. contract Salmonella each year, and that an average of 20,000 hospitalizations and almost 400 deaths occur from Salmonella poisoning, according to a 2011 report.

Nick: How does a Salmonella infection occur?

Mr. Nelken: Salmonella infection usually occurs when a person eats food contaminated with the feces of animals or humans carrying the bacteria.  Salmonella outbreaks are commonly associated with inadequately cooked: eggs, meat and poultry, but these bacteria can also contaminate other foods such as fruits and vegetables. Foods that are most likely to contain Salmonella include raw or undercooked eggs, raw milk, contaminated water, and raw or undercooked meats. and unpasteurized milk.

Nick: How long does it take for Salmonella poisoning to arise?

Mr. Nelken: On set – 12-72 hours.

Nick: What safety precautions can be taken by food preparers?

Mr. Nelken: Clean hands before preparing foods. Sanitize work surfaces. Keep animals (pets) off of food prep surfaces. Keep cut melons at 41F at all times.

Nick: Who is most likely to be impacted by Salmonella poisoning?

Mr. Nelken: Salmonella poisonings are more likely to occur among young children and people age 65 or older.

Nick: What are possible complications of Salmonella poisoning?

Mr. Nelken: Possible complications include:

  • Reactive arthritis: This is thought to occur in 2 to 15 percent of Salmonella patients. Symptoms include inflammation of the joints, eyes, or reproductive or urinary organs. On average, symptoms appear 18 days after infection.
  • Focal infection: A focal infection occurs when Salmonella bacteria takes root in body tissue and causes illnesses such as arthritis or endocartitis. It is caused by typhoidal Salmonella only in cross contamination.

Nick: Is dirty equipment usually to blame for an outbreak in pre-packaged foods?

Mr. Nelken: Not only equipment, but the environment, like dust in a shed or birds flying around.

There you have it folks. Make sure to keep your pre-cut melon at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Keep your food preparation areas clean and sanitized. Also, it is probably best if you do not let your animals walk on your kitchen counter tops.

If you have children or you are 65 years of age or older, make sure to contact your doctor if you are having intestinal issues. Do not try to tough it out!

EngineeringExpert WitnessInsurancelegaltech

Robot Rights and Liability: Do they need legal rights? Here’s what one expert witness has to say…

Have you been following the advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics? There are some really fascinating developments in the fields. Just this week I’ve read about artificially intelligent systems used to identify people likely to commit a crime (before it happens); robotics systems being used in construction; unmanned aerial vehicles; self-driving cars; and, of course, it seems a week cannot go by without a new headline about sex robots.

Last Friday, I found some news stories that were really interesting. It appears a 2017 report from the European Commission had “a paragraph of text buried deep in a European Parliament report, that advised creating a ‘legal status for robots,'” according to this article from The Daily Mail.

I found this quite fascinating and had to dig deeper. Why would we need to develop a legal status for robots? What would be the point? An article in Futurism stated, “If a robot, acting autonomously injures or otherwise wrongs a human, who will be held responsible? Some European lawmakers think that the best way to resolve this question will be to give robots ‘electronic personalities,’ a form of legal person-hood.”

To me, there is a simple answer to this topic. The owner and/or the manufacturer would be held liable. Why would society need something beyond existing negligence, product liability, and consumer protection laws?

According to the report, the European Commission does not want to give robots legal status equal to humans. Rather, they want to give them a status similar to corporations. The concern doesn’t seem to apply to your automation-style robots, but rather those capable of self-learning.

I contend we do not need new theories of liability to address this issue. It should be handled just like owning an automobile. As the owner of a car, I must have it insured. Insurance covers personal injury and property damage caused by the vehicle if I am driving it or if another driver is covered by my policy. If the vehicle malfunctions and causes damage due to a manufacturing, design, or warning defect, then I sue the manufacturer (or another injured party may sue the manufacturer). As such, owner and manufacturer are the responsible parties. My automobile doesn’t require its own legal status.

A robot, sentient or not, does not require its own legal status. It can be insured just like an automobile and the owner should be responsible for insuring the equipment. Furthermore, if it malfunctions and causes harm, the manufacturer can be held liable for any product defects.

I have asked for some input on this topic from a couple of our Experts.com members. At the time of this writing we have received a response from one expert. Dr. Harry Direen, PhD, PE, has a wide variety of expertise including electronic systems, control systems, robotics, software, signal processing, UAV’s/drones, and more. I encourage you to check out his company DireenTech.

Several questions were posited to Dr. Direen. Please see the questions and answers below.

What the expert has to say:

Me: Do you see any need for creating a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No… robots are not humans, they are machines.  Despite the hype, I do not believe robot technology is anywhere near thinking on their own or being responsible for their actions.

Me: Are there any positive reasons to create a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No, not that I know of.

Me: Are there any negatives you can think of in creating a legal status?

Dr. Direen: Yes, as a society we start legally blurring the lines between humans and the machines we create.  I don’t believe we elevate humans in the process, but just the opposite.  We advance the myth that humans are little more than carbon based machines with no more value than the machines we create rather than highly valued creations of our Creator.

Me: Is there any reason damage caused by robots cannot be addressed by existing legal principles such as product liability (manufacturing, design, or warning defects)?

Dr. Direen: No. Giving robots legal status would simply be an excuse to divorce engineers, designers, and manufactures from the responsibility of their products.

Me: If a robot were to fail and cause personal or property damage, would a forensic investigation apply the same principles as any other failure analysis investigation?

Dr. Direen: Yes, a robot is just a piece of technology like any other.

So there you have it. Dr. Direen and I seem to be in agreement. Existing legal and investigatory principles should apply to robots. There is no need to provide additional legal protections to machinery.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts. It is a fascinating topic. Robotics is a field where I anticipate a great deal of future litigation. As the topic evolves, I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in greater depth.

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionAccident SafetyExpert Witness

Tesla and Uber Self-Driving Systems Result in Fatal Crashes

In the last few weeks we have read several news reports about self-driving car accidents. Tesla and Uber, two companies leading innovation in driverless automobiles, have recently experienced fatal collisions which have hampered their autonomous testing. These are not the first instances of fatal crashes using the self-piloting systems. However, the collisions happened in such a close time frame, the public had to take notice.

On March 18, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian. A Phoenix Business Journal article describes video of incident as follows:

“The video shows the victim Elaine Herzberg walking her bike in the middle of the road. It does not show the actual collision “due to the graphic nature of the impact,” said Det. Liliana Duran in an email. The video also shows an interior view of the driver looking down at something off and on, possibly a phone or computer screen, before looking up in surprise right before the car hits the woman.”

Due to the graphic nature of the video, we have decided not to share it here. There appears to be some elements of distracted driving involved in this crash. Human error seems to have combined with a failure by the autonomous (self-piloting) system, to identify the pedestrian and brake or take evasive action to avoid the collision.

About 5 days after the Uber crash, Tesla experienced a similar incident while their autopilot system was engaged. Engadget reported on this accident explaining:

“The driver of a Model X has died after his electric SUV collided with a median barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View and was subsequently struck by two other vehicles. The incident destroyed the front half of the vehicle and sparked a fire that involved the battery, leading to Tesla sending an employee to investigate. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball during the crash.”

In a follow-up article today, Engadget has gone on to state that the NTSB is unhappy that Tesla shared information about the accident. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, went ahead and blogged that autopilot was engaged but that the driver had removed his hands from the steering wheel for the six seconds prior to impact. The NTSB says Tesla has been cooperative in all previous accident investigations, but evidently they did not want this information made public. Also, it seems the deceased driver, had some concerns about the autopilot system according to his family.

The family claims “he had brought concerns to a Tesla dealership that his Model X had previously swerved toward the same median where the accident happened.”

What gets investigated when autopilot fails?

Readers may think that some elaborate investigation needs to take place since we are dealing with driverless automobiles. The truth is, this boils down to an automotive / vehicular accident reconstruction issue.

Certainly there is advanced programming involved and the crash data retrieval (CDR) may require new methods or new technologies to access information, but the data must be recovered nonetheless.

The NTSB even states, “At this time the NTSB needs the assistance of Tesla to decode the data the vehicle recorded.” They probably require help in accessing the data from Tesla’s proprietary system, but it is still a matter of CDR. If Elon Musk knows that the driver removed his hands from the wheel for six seconds prior to impact, he must have learned of this through the data retrieval process used by Tesla.

The same is true in the Uber crash. They already have dash-cam footage that shows the vehicle did not slow before striking the pedestrian. In that instance, an accident recontstructionist, automotive engineer, or automotive software engineer will have to analyze the self-driving sensors, data, and response of the software, to determine why the car failed to respond while on autopilot.

Both of these accidents require failure analysis. What seems new to us as a society, is that these crashes involved a failure of software, rather than brakes, tires, steering columns, or seat belt failures (failures that have become common and often result in a recall to fix a feature).

The technology and collection methods may change. However, the theories of liability and the investigation remain pretty constant. We have two automobile crashes resulting in death. They require a thorough accident reconstruction investigation to determine the cause of the accidents. Once determined, matters of negligence, product liability, and fault still apply.