Adverse Effects of Lawsuits

For this post, I will leave aside for a moment the unfairness of monetary penalties for ridiculous claims or the incredible erosion of individual responsibility that is being created by jackpot litigation.

In addition to these problems, runaway litigation is causing people and organizations everywhere to take defensive postures to protect themselves from suits, and many of these defensive tactics are generally not in the public's interest.  Here are some examples:

One area that bothers me a lot is the area of safety engineering, whether it be for cars or whatever.  I was a mechanical engineer at an oil refinery for several years.  A big part of my job was assessing if a certain condition was "safe" or "unsafe".  Very often, I was working with shades of gray - safety is never absolute.  In fact, the only real way to make a refinery 100% safe is the same way you make cars 100% safe:  you don't have any. 

The way we dealt with the gray was to have a lot of discussion.  I might observe that I was concerned with a certain situation, and my colleagues and I would discuss it.  With some additional research, we would generally reach a consensus on the best approach.  Because we usually made these trade-offs with an inherent bias to err towards safety, I can't think of a decision we made that led to a problem.  We did have several fires/explosions, and one man was killed in one of these, but each and every one was generally caused by some combination of factors we never anticipated, e.g:

there was a steam leak under the insulation of that pipe, and since the pipe was running at a lower temperature than expected, the water condensed, and it turned out the water had an unexpected contaminant such that when it came in contact with the flange bolts it caused an unusual crack propagation mode, made worse by the fact that the flange bolt material was not the kind specced because the vendor had made a mistake on delivery, and the flange eventually gave way and a fire started.

Yeah, this really happened- I include it to say that the situation is never like on the TV mini-series -- evil corporation skimps on 30 cent part knowing it created an unsafe situation.  Safety engineering means tough trade-offs, and, after a ton of work, problems usually occur in an area no one imagined.

Anyway, this is the type of thing I used to do, and doing it well relied mainly on open, honest dialog about safety problems.  Nowadays, however, my sense is that this open dialog in corporations may soon be over.  Corporations are legitimately worried that some young engineer like myself might have written a memo about a potential hazard, and that this memo will end up being exhibit A in some plaintiffs case that the company "knew about" some hazard and did nothing about it.  Think about all the cases you hear about, even the recent Vioxx case -- the center piece of every plaintiffs argument is often that the company "was warned" and is therefore truly evil, because it knew of the problem and did nothing.  The words "smoking gun memo" are practically attached to these lawsuits, but I have always asked myself - are these smoking guns that point to culpability, or are they in fact pointing to a robust safety engineering process?

So, if we have gotten to the point where having internal people asking questions and challenging the company's product and process safety makes companies more vulnerable to lawsuits rather than less, then companies are going to start clamping down on the open internal dialog about safety.  And then the world really will be a less safe place.


Having written this post, I had a flashback to a training video I was shown early on at Exxon.  The video was anti-trust training, and the only message I remember is "don't write it down".  The message was mainly aimed at sales people, who tend to be gung ho and competitive and say things like "lets go out there and crush the competition this week".  This is all fine and good for Joe's Auto Body, but written on an Exxon letterhead, it becomes the central exhibit of some anti-trust trial.  Thus the don't write it down advice.  Anyway, I will be very sad, but not surprised, if they are now showing this video to the engineers as well.

  • Max Lybbert

    Just a heads-up, the link to for some reason is listed as a "mailto" link, so it opens up an email program with the web address as the recipient. Feel free to delete this comment when the link is repaired.