Inventors Who Were Killed by Their Own Inventions

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In matters of defective and dangerous products and product liability, we often think of the consumers as the primary victims — and in many cases, they are.  But inanimate objects do not (indeed cannot) discriminate, and sometimes their own inventors are the ones who are victimized.  In this blog entry, our personal injury attorneys revisit some notable cases of inventors who were killed by their own inventions.  Were these simply tragic flukes?  Or are these products inherently hazardous?  You can be the judge.

Jimi Heselden of Segway, Inc. Rides Over a Cliff

Alright, so we’re cheating a little with this one.  Jimi Heselden didn’t technically invent the Segway — but he did own Segway, Inc., the company which manufactured the machine.

The Segway was invented by Dean Kamen, and made its world debut in 2001.  In 2010, Heselden purchased Segway, Inc., with the intent of developing Kamen’s “gyrobike” further.

The machine received mixed reviews upon its premiere, both hailed as a futuristic innovation and mocked for appearing clunky, awkward, and downright silly.  In fact, the Segway is frequently used as comedy fodder on popular television show Arrested Development, with an episode of South Park also devoted to poking fun at the device.  Nonetheless, its creators had high hopes.  Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com even pronounced, “Cities will be built around this device.”

Bezos’ prediction has yet to come true, thanks partially to the highly publicized death of Segway, Inc. owner Jimi Heselden in 2010.  Heselden was a British entrepreneur who had made his millions (340 of them) with the HESCO bastion prior to taking an interest in Segway.  But Heselden’s support for Segway was not purely financial calculation — he enjoyed riding the Segway in his personal life as well.  Sadly, he would die partaking in his hobby.

62-year-old Heselden was last seen riding a Segway near his West Yorkshire estate.  Around 11:40 A.M. on the morning of September 26, 2010, local police received reports of a body falling into the River Wharfe from the jagged limestone cliffs above.  Paramedics pronounced Heselden dead at the scene, with the coroner’s report citing “multiple blunt force injuries to the chest and spine consistent with a fall.”

It was ultimately determined that Heselden’s fatal fall was not, in fact, the result of mechanical malfunction, but of human error.  After being recovered from the scene and analyzed by experts, this particular Segway was deemed perfectly safe for use.

West Yorkshire Coroner David Hinchliff had this much to say: “[Heselden] held back and waited as an act of courtesy to allow Mr. Christie [a dog walker] more room.  In so doing, he’s attempted to reverse the Segway back.  As a result of that, he’s got into difficulty.”

The verdict?  On the one hand, the Segway is mechanically sound — nothing malfunctioned.  But on the other, its controls aren’t always easy to use — and in Heselden’s case, a split-second mistake led to a tragic death.

Henry Smolinski Tries to Combine a Pinto with a Cessna

Some people are car enthusiasts.  Some people are aviation enthusiasts.  Some people are inventors who think outside the box and then proceed to pick up the box and dropkick it into oblivion.  Henry Smolinski was all three: a lover of cars, airplanes, and car-airplane hybrids that would have caused Acme cartoon characters to turn white with terror.

Today, the Pinto inspires two reactions: laughter over how terrible it was, and horror over how terrible it was.  Ralph Nader famously called the Ford Pinto “unsafe at any speed,” and after a grisly series of deaths, injuries, and lawsuits, Ford’s explosive Pinto was finally pulled from production in 1980.

But in 1973, the Pinto was still running strong.  Aeronautical engineer Henry Smolinski, a recent graduate of the Northrop Institute of Technology, wondered if he could successfully combine the Pinto’s power with a Cessna’s lift to create an entirely new mode of transportation.

Smolinski called his experimental vehicle the AVE Mizar.  The AVE Mizar, named for the Mizar star of the “Horse and Rider,” featured the wings and rear end of a Cessna mounted on the roof of a Pinto.  Wing struts from the Cessna attached the wings to the car beneath.  Unfortunately for Smolinski, the AVE Mizar would never make it to the production phase slated to begin in 1974.

On a September day in 1973, Smolinski and friend Harold Blake were conducting a routine test of the AVE Mizar.  Smolinski manned the controls, while Blake rode as a passenger.  An air traffic controller watched in horror as the right wing strut failed, causing the wing to lose its support and buckle downward.  Damage to the wing resulted in a fatal crash which killed both Blake and Smolinski.

The NTSB (National Transporation Safety Board), the organization responsible for investigation plane crashes in America, determined that the primary cause of the crash was a bad weld in the defective strut. The NTSB also cited the Pinto’s weight — heavier than the load the Cessna was designed to carry — as a contributing factor, in addition to an overall poor design.

Unlike Heselden, the deaths of Blake and Smolinski were caused by a defective product.  No amount of flying expertise could have prevented a poorly welded wing strut from crumbling under duress.  If the AVE Mizar had been a viable machine, it may have lived on into the present.  Smolinski’s brave if risky dream died with him, while the Segway — despite all the teasing — continues to enjoy status as a marketable luxury item today.

When products are poorly designed or insufficiently tested, they can pose a serious hazard to the consumers (or inventors) who use them. If you or someone you love has been hurt by a defective product, you may have a case for a product liability lawsuit.  To speak confidentially with an experienced Philadelphia personal injury attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online today.

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