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Defective carbon fiber bicycle frames can cause serious injury or death

With the gradual expansion of bicycle trails and bike lanes on streets and  roads, biking for recreation, exercise and to a lesser degree commuting are becoming more popular in metro Atlanta and throughout Georgia. The growing popularity of triathlons drives much of the growth in very high end bicycles. Those of us who go for long bike rides on the Silver Comet Trail, the Stone Mountain Trail, the Atlanta Beltline and other dedicated paths think we are playing it safe by staying out of traffic while working up a sweat. We tend to think that if we avoid interacting with distracted drivers, and ride an expensive bike with an impressive brand name rather than a cheap beater bike from a big box store, we will be fine.

But that may not be a safe assumption, as many expensive carbon fiber bikes bearing prestigious names and logos include carbon fiber frames cheaply manufactured in China and Taiwan. While bicycles are governed by federal safety and design regulations, the carbon fiber frames and forks may be made in countries that have no such safety regulations. When these are incorporated into bikes sold under the name of an American or European company, the customer typically has no way of knowing.

This is important because failure of a defective bike frame can result in a catastrophic accident. When the bike frame breaks, the rider loses control and crashes. If a bicycle rider is going downhill on a paved road at 25 mph when the frame breaks, he or she will go over the handlebars and hit the pavement at the speed of the bike. This is likely to result in traumatic brain injury even with a helmet, spinal cord that may include paralysis, multiple facial fractures, shoulder dislocation, other back injuries and fractures. The rider will lucky to survive without permanent disability.

In the U.S., federal law requires that all component parts must  be labeled with the country of origin. However, brand name bicycle manufactures in the U.S. and Europe are skillful at hiding the “Made in China” label. It may be inside the seat tube, on the top tube in a place that will be concealed when the bike is assembled, or underneath the bottom bracket and down tubes. American customers thus pay hundreds of even thousands of dollars for what they believe to be a high quality European or American made bike that is sold under false pretenses.

Carbon fiber manufacturing quality is vitally important to control torsional loads in bikes. Too often the quality control in Chinese and Taiwanese carbon fiber manufacturing is insufficient to make a reliably high quality product. Inadequate worker training and supervision, poor quality control and quality assurance practices and weak testing standards are major causes of bicycle defects and related injuries. For example, when carbon fiber pre-impregnanted fabric (“prepreg”) is sloppily layered so that wrinkles occur that are invisible to the bike rider, this can cause sudden failure of the bike at high speed with catastrophic results.

When a bike frame breaks resulting in serious injury or death, it is absolutely essential to do the following things:

1.       Act promptly to retain a lawyer who will get the right kind of expert to analyze the cause of bike failure.

2.       Immediately act to preserve the bicycle and all the broken parts to preserve the chain of evidence. If the product is not preserved as evidence, there will be no case.

3.       Work promptly to identify all potential parties and file suit early, realizing that some may be hidden. If you wait until near the statute of limitations date, it will be too late to add defendants that are identified in discovery. For example, a defective bike case might include the brand name manufacturer, its U.S. importer / assembler / distributor, the retailer (though Georgia law generally protects retailers in products liability cases), the Chinese or Taiwanese component manufacturer, and perhaps a Chinese or Taiwanese company that brokered the components.  It always takes a lot of time and expense to serve U.S. lawsuits on defendants in those countries, often up to a year, another reason it is important to start early.

4.       There may be a challenge in obtaining jurisdiction in Georgia courts over a Chinese manufacturer.  A federal court decision in the Middle District of Georgia puts the burden on the plaintiff to prove that a substantial portion of the foreign company’s sales or revenue are derived in Georgia, and China blocks discovery against Chinese companies by which that information might be obtained. It is likely, however, that the Georgia long-arm jurisdiction statute will be amended in 2016 to alleviate this problem. Legislation that we helped draft passed the Georgia House of Representatives in 2015 but time ran out before it passed in the Senate.

Over 20 years ago, we pioneered another legal theory that may be applicable in cases of hidden sourcing of defective products. In a case involving a death caused by a defective work platform sold to be mounted on a folklift, we applied the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act regarding unfair and deceptive acts in commerce where the customer was misled about the source of the product. It is a tough needle to thread, but when the FBPA can be made applicable it can provide treble damages, punitive damages and attorney fees in personal injury and wrongful death cases caused by unfair or deceptive acts and practices in commerce. If the sourcing of defectively manufactures carbon fiber bike frames and forks is hidden from consumers, the FBPA may provide injured Georgia bicyclists with another area for obtaining something approaching a full measure of justice and fair compensation.

In prosecuting a case for an injury or death caused by a defective bicycle, one must be alert to jury biases against bicyclists. People who only drive and do not ride bikes may have been annoyed by bicyclists on the roads, even if the bike riders were entirely in the right. They may feel that anyone riding a bike is taking his life in his hands and deserves any bad thing that happens. The lawyer for the injured person must develop persuasive ways to overcome that bias. Moreover, some people prefer the simple solution of blaming a victim over the harder mental work of understanding complex evidence of the cause of a product failure. It is essential to simply and comprehensibly explain complex information in a way that engages and persuades jurors.


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