Product Liability, Failure Analysis, Design Defects, and Patent Infringement Issues
Analyzed by Board Certified Forensic Engineers
Veritech Consulting Engineering employs licensed professional forensic engineers for the investigation and analysis of mechanical failures and motor vehicle accidents. Veritech’s forensic engineers are experienced in product failure analysis and product liability investigation as well as reviewing complex engineering designs for the analysis and evaluation of patent infringement claims. Veritech engineers are selected for their unique and varied backgrounds which enable them to approach complicated problems from several different viewpoints to ensure thorough and accurate solutions. Our extensive experience in forensic engineering matters includes investigations ranging from motor vehicle accidents to unique incidents involving medical equipment failures, construction accidents and various manufacturing or design defects.
What is Forensic Engineering?
In simple terms, Forensic Engineering involves the investigation of mechanical failures. More specifically, forensic engineering is the application of engineering principles and practices in the analysis of evidence to determine the root cause of a failure or mishap; sometimes this is referred to as “reverse engineering”. Mechanical failures can often be attributed to design defects, manufacturing defects, improper maintenance, or misuse of the product. Forensic engineers may be called upon to investigate a failure for litigation purposes (involving personal injury or large financial loss) or they can be utilized to improve the performance of a product.
When is a Forensic Engineer Needed?
When a product failure or an accident occurs, it is often accompanied by personal injury or large financial loss. In these situations insurance companies and attorneys are often involved to settle claims or disputes. Forensic engineers are enlisted to assist insurance companies and attorneys with the analysis of the evidence and to determine the cause, or contributing causes, of the failure or mishap. In litigation related investigations, forensic engineers work as independent and unbiased experts to determine the series of events which led to the failure or accident. Once an engineer reaches their conclusions or opinions, they will often detail their findings in a formal report that may be submitted to the court for review by opposing parties or opposing experts. The forensic engineer may also be called upon to provide expert testimony, under oath, regarding the opinions expressed in their report and to answer questions about the methodologies and findings that were relied upon to reach their conclusions. Expert testimony can be required for either a deposition setting, during the discovery process, or at trial in the presence of a judge and jury. The expert testimony provided by a forensic engineer helps explain the engineering analysis that was performed in order to reach a conclusion regarding the origin of a failure. In this setting, it is valuable for the engineer to be able to break down complex engineering principles and present them in an easily understandable manner for the non-technical members of a jury.
Common Sources of a Product Failure:
Veritech’s Forensic Engineers have performed hundreds of investigations related to product failures and motor vehicle accident reconstructions. Based upon our experience, we have found that the root cause of many failures can be grouped into four main categories: design defects, manufacturing defects, improper maintenance, or misuse.
Design defects can be identified by the presence of multiple similar failures of a particular product during foreseeable use. The presence of numerous “other similar incidents”, or OSIs, is an indication of a systemic problem or weakness that is present in all, or many, of the products as manufactured. Examples of design defects include incorrect material specification, improper part thickness, inadequate clearance between parts, or failure to consider the “tolerance stack-up” of an assembly.
Manufacturing defects may present themselves as less common occurrence of a failure under reasonable or anticipated usage. Manufacturing defects can originate from improper manufacturing processes as well as improper assembly. The investigation of manufacturing defects may require a multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating the expertise of material engineers, manufacturing engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.
Many products and machines have a manufacturer’s specified maintenance schedule. The maintenance schedule will typically include the replacement of parts which are consumable during use (such as a car’s brake pads) as well as the inspection of parts which are prone to wear out over time (such as articulating joints and pivot points). If the manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations are not adhered to, the result can be excessive play or failure which leads to an incident.
Most of the products which are involved in personal injury or large financial loss require interaction by an operator. Misuse of the product by an operator can take the form of inadequate training or intentional misuse. Failure of an operator to follow training guidelines, operator manuals, or on-product warnings can expose the operator, as well as by-standers, to unnecessary risk of injury.
Mitigation of Potential Hazards:
There are several methods, techniques, and practices which have been developed to assist manufacturers and design engineers in the proper development of consumer level products. Various risk management tools such as FMEA, Design Hierarchy, and ANSI warning label requirements have been developed to identify and mitigate potential risks.
FMEA, which stands for Failure Mode Effects Analysis, is a system that was developed in the 1940’s by the US Military to identify all possible failures in the design, manufacturing, and assembly processes of a product. FMEA has been widely accepted by virtually all major manufacturers of consumer goods as a process analysis tool to identify and eliminate potential failure modes of their product. When properly performed, this step-by-step analysis process allows manufacturers to identify potential problems before they enter the marketplace and take appropriate steps to mitigate the risks to consumers.
The Design Hierarchy (or Safety Hierarchy) is a theory related to the proper way to mitigate risks; sometimes referred to the “Design-Guard-Warn” hierarchy. The theory essentially states that the most desirable way to mitigate a hazard is to design the product in a manner in which the hazard does not exist. If the hazard cannot be designed out of the product then the product should contain a guard to prevent the user from encountering the hazard. If it is not possible to design around the hazard or guard against the hazard, then the manufacturer should provide an effective warning to inform the user of the potential hazard.
In order for a warning to be effective, it must contain the proper information. The information required for a warning label has been standardized by the American National Standards Institution in the standard designated as ANSI/NEMA Z535.4. Z535.4 states that “A product safety sign or label should alert persons to a specific hazard, the degree or level of hazard seriousness, the probable consequence of involvement with the hazard, and how the hazard can be avoided.” In other words, an effective warning will describe what the hazard is, state what the consequences of the hazard are, and tell the user how to avoid the hazard.
Veritech’s forensic engineering team has the training, education, and experience to investigate and analyze incidents involving failures and mishaps associated with a wide variety of mechanical products. Our team has first-hand, industry experience in the engineering, design, development and manufacture of various consumer products and medical equipment. Additionally, our team has been qualified by both state and federal courts and has presented sworn testimony of their investigation findings and conclusions at depositions and trials for consideration by judges and juries.