Forensic Bicycle Expert, Luke Elrath was interviewed by Eric Barton of Outside Online in the development of an article that discusses the cause and extent of carbon fiber bicycle failures.
Forensic Bicycle Expert Interviewed about Carbon Fiber Bicycle Failures
Luke Elrath of Robson Forensic is a bicycle expert who applies his expertise to the investigation of a broad range of injuries and mishaps involving bicycles. Luke has designed, built, and repaired bicycles, he also has extensive experience in the saddle, competing, commuting, and riding for leisure. Prior to joining Robson Forensic, Luke worked as a product manager for large and small bicycle manufacturers, he remains active in the industry building his own bicycles and advocating for bicycle safety.
In this article, Luke shared his insight and expertise with Outside Online to discuss why carbon fiber bikes are failing. Luke has investigated numerous incidents involving carbon fiber bicycle failures and approaches each forensic case with the knowledge of working within the bicycle industry as well as the hands-on experience of building carbon fiber frames and components himself.
To discuss a potential case assignment with Luke, please submit an inquiry.
Why Carbon Fiber Bikes are Failing [excerpt from article]
Janet Kowal had a personal connection to the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Even though she’s now living outside Chicago, working for the Village of Burr Ridge town hall, Kowal has Iowa in her blood. The 2013 route would take her through her hometown of Des Moines and skirt the University of Iowa, where she graduated in 1987. Kowal bought a new-to-her 2007 Giant OCR C1 road bike for the event and, to be cautious, took it to her local bike shop for a full-service tune-up.
Not long into the ride, however, Kowal’s bike shattered beneath her. For no apparent reason—she’d neither hit an obstacle nor encountered a pothole—the front fork snapped in half as if it had exploded from within. Kowal was sent crashing into the pavement, helmet first. She fractured her spine and clavicle, suffered a concussion, and tore ligaments in her left thumb.
After missing weeks of work and racking up medical bills for surgeries on her hand, Kowal sued in 2013. She went after the shop that sold her the bike, the one that serviced it, and then Giant itself. The lawsuit, filed in Cook County, Illinois, claims that a manufacturing defect in the fork’s carbon fiber caused it to fail.
Taiwan-based Giant quickly tried to bow out. The company argued in court filings that there’s an entirely independent Giant in the United States in charge of distribution to authorized retailers. While Giant of Taiwan made the bike, it can’t be held liable, the company claimed, because it doesn’t do business in Illinois, and the U.S.-based Giant shares no negligence either because it didn’t make the bike.
The company’s argument wasn’t new. It has been made in hundreds of similar lawsuits involving foreign-made bikes. In many of them, the logic has been enough to sway judges to throw out lawsuits or convince bike owners to settle. But the judge in Kowal’s case said the lawsuit could go forward against both Giant of Taiwan and its U.S.-based cousin. Giant appealed; in September, the Illinois Appellate Court agreed to let the lawsuit continue—the first time an appellate court has weighed in on such a case.
“This is an area of law that has been in flux in recent years,” says Ken Hoffman, Kowal’s Chicago-based attorney. “The bike manufacturers are like nesting dolls. They set up layers and layers of companies to try to protect themselves, but finally they are being held liable.”
There’s already a cottage industry of people who specialize in lawsuits resulting from bike accidents, including a growing cadre of attorneys and forensic experts who specialize in carbon fiber. Now that use of the material, once reserved for high-end bikes, has become widespread in the bike industry, reports of accidents and mysterious failures are on the rise. Kowal’s case signals that bike manufacturers—even overseas brands—may now be held accountable. The result could be a dramatic spike in the number of lawsuits brought against makers of carbon-fiber bike parts.
“There’s an old saying in bike manufacturing: It can be lightweight, durable, or cheap—pick two. A lot of these carbon-fiber components are lightweight and cheap, but they are not durable.” says Luke Elrath, an engineer who once designed kids’ bikes for Trek and now works as a bicycle-accident expert for Robson Forensic in Philadelphia. Soon after joining the firm in 2012, Elrath began noticing an uptick in calls from lawyers looking for his analysis of carbon-fiber bicycle components that had failed under their clients. After researching how the carbon components in these cases were made, Elrath now believes many of the accidents occurred because of faulty design and construction.
Access the full article at: https://www.outsideonline.com/2311816/carbon-fiber-bike-accidents-lawsuits
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or policies of RFI, nor do they suggest an affiliation of RFI or its employees with any other company, group, or organization. Views expressed by our expert(s) within the context of the article are conditional upon the circumstances of the article and should not be taken as the technical opinion(s) of the expert(s) or RFI in similar cases.
Forensic Bicycle Investigations
Bicycles are ridden by many types of people, for many different reasons, in a vast range of environments. From urban commuters, to competitive racers, to childhood explorers, our bicycle investigations take us from the cities, to the mountains, and back to the suburbs to understand how a particular incident occurred and the contributing factors.
Many bicycle investigations begin with a reconstruction to determine how an incident occurred and how the rider was injured. Our experts are able to determine if there was a defect in the bicycle or its components, if assembly or maintenance was a factor, and whether or not the environment (road, street, path) or something in the environment (traffic signal, pothole, gate, grate, obstruction, bridge joint) was a factor. We do this for all types of bicycles: mountain, road, BMX, cross, downhill, recumbent, stationary, and exercise.
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Luke has worked as a product manager for large and small bicycle manufacturers, raced competitively on the road and on the trails, and has worked as a metropolitan bicycle courier. In addition to assembling bikes as a product manager, he also designs and builds his own frames. He is a licensed League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructor. He is licensed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association as a tour guide and skills instructor. Luke’s casework includes all matters related to bicycles including bicycle failures, improper bicycle assembly, rider actions, shop operations, and event organization.Why Carbon Fiber Bikes Are FailingWhy Carbon Fiber Bikes Are Failing