Lawsuits can paralyze
Fifteen years ago, when I was working in the sporting goods industry, a high-school football player was paralyzed. That, by itself, wasn’t startling; football is a violent endeavor even at the high-school level and a small number of players across the country are paralyzed just about every season.
What made this particular event startling was the ultimate outcome. The athlete was playing for a school in Texas, where the passion for prep football approaches religious fervor. Oddly, the athlete was paralyzed not from an injury suffered during the game, but after. Distraught over a last-second defeat to his school’s arch rival, the player — still in full gear — bolted through the locker-room doors and head-butted a concrete pillar in the parking lot.
The athlete’s family subsequently sued the school, the school district, and the football-helmet manufacturer — even the sporting-goods retailer that sold the helmet to the school — alleging that the helmet failed to adequately protect the player. Despite the well-reasoned argument that the helmet was manufactured for football, and not concrete-pillar head-butting, the jury awarded the athlete a large amount of money in damages. A source familiar with the case told me at the time it is not unusual for juries to award damages in such cases, even when they believe there is no merit to the claim; seeing a young person whose life has been tragically and irrevocably altered often elicits an emotional, not rational, response.
The verdict sent shock waves through the sporting-goods industry. Football-helmet manufacturers quickly abandoned the business; in short order, a segment that once had a dozen manufacturers or more dwindled to just two. Nearly two decades later, there still are just two domestic helmet manufacturers.
I thought about this case as I read this issue’s cover story. The families of 12 New York City firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center attack have sued the city and Motorola, alleging that the radios issued to the firefighters didn’t work properly, and that the city knew it and did nothing about it. Motorola has said the radios did what they were designed to do. Sounds a little like the Texas case, doesn’t it?
I’m not a liability attorney, so I’m not in a position to offer an opinion as to the merits of the New York City case. But I do believe it eventually will be viewed as a watershed event for the land mobile radio industry — just as the Texas lawsuit was for the sporting goods industry — even if the case never reaches a jury. It will force manufacturers to rethink their strategies, from how they design and market their products to how they interact with their customers. Hopefully, it won’t make them skittish and reluctant to innovate, as some already fear. For that would be a tragedy of a different kind.