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Which Came First? The chicken or the egg?


Failures can be a great thing. Okay, the New Coke wasn’t such a great thing and the designer of the Pinto should have been fired long before the first body panel was ever stamped, but from a forensic engineering perspective, failures can be great things. Insurance companies over the years have seen the best of failures, as they can often be associated with a monetary loss. The problem then arises—why did the failure occur and what were the contributing factors? Sometimes it can be as simple as a user error such as John Doe neglecting to put oil in his car engine and the engine dies. Sometimes it can be a fundamental design problem caused by the person or people who designed the Ford ignition switch that caused many vehicle fires. Determining the cause of failures can be challenging and often seem like an impossible task. 

A common question from insurance companies regarding failures comes from comparison to the eternal question…which came first, the chicken or the egg? For example, a driver involved in a rollover accident indicates that just prior to the accident, he saw the left rear wheel on his vehicle come flying off and attributes the flying wheel as the cause of the accident.  Trying to prove this as the cause requires more information and analysis than a dislodged wheel and the driver’s statement.  Perhaps the wheel came off because of the accident, which was caused by something else entirely. A forensic engineer can help assist in this determination.  Using metallurgical analysis techniques, engineers can assess the mode in which the wheel failed such as sudden torsional overload, bending overload, or fatigue; any of these failures would indicate a particular cause. Information from the vehicle and accident scene along with this metallurgical analysis should yield subsequent conclusions that will assist or potentially rule out further action such as litigation.

It seems to be all too common a question, “The (blank) failed and we need to know whether it occurred before, during, or after the incident.” Sintra Engineering has investigated many of these scenarios for vehicles and industrial and household equipment. The truth is…things fail everyday; sometimes it is because of misuse of the product by the end user, sometimes it is due to improper design, and sometimes it is a result of conditions outside human influence. With sufficient information gathered from the failed component and the interrelated pieces, the sequence of events leading to a failure can be determined.  As a consequence, defects in materials and designs can be identified and false claims can be dismissed. Wheels will continue to dislodge from moving vehicles, airbags will deploy at low speeds, in-floor heating systems will leak, and brake systems will fail to brake; fortunately, forensic engineering investigations into the causes of failures are usually easier to resolve than the proverbial ‘chicken’.


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