Boys hurt on bikes sue Wal-Mart, importer Marin trial to focus on wheel clasp used on millions of cycles - Demian Bulwa and Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writers Sunday, December 4, 2005 Click to View Anthony McCurdy watched the front wheel fall off his bike while riding to a bowling alley, he says. The 12-year-old's face hit the sidewalk, and his bicycle landed on his chest. Short of breath, he got up, but then had a seizure and again fell face-first, knocking out his two top front teeth. Anthony, now a high school junior in West Chicago, said the crash more than five years ago changed him. "I'm just not as able to absorb information as I was before," he said. He and eight other boys from around the nation are suing retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which sold the bikes, and a San Rafael company that imported them from China. A trial in the case begins Monday in a Marin County courtroom, and the youths are expected to testify about smashing their faces into pavement after the front wheels came loose. The lawsuit asserts that the so-called quick-release devices on the front wheels malfunctioned when the bikes hit bumps. The clasps, used on millions of bicycles, are designed to hold the front-wheel axle to the frame and allow the wheel to be easily removed for repairs or transport. The boys and their parents also claim that Wal-Mart conspired with Dynacraft BSC Inc. of San Rafael and Carl Warren & Co., which investigated complaints for the importer, to cover up the defects. The suit alleges that Wal-Mart, which sold the bikes for about $150 each, and the Marin importer, which has a record of failing to report injuries, knew the bikes were dangerous because of complaints from users -- but failed to report alleged defects to government regulators while continuing to sell the bicycles. "Consumers in America deserve to be able to rely on the safety of products they buy for their children," said Mark Webb, a San Francisco attorney representing the boys, who crashed from February 2000 to September 2003. Among the evidence that will be presented in the trial is a display containing seven photographs of children ranging in age from 7 to 13 with gruesome, debilitating head wounds and gashes on the face. The bikes alleged to have defective wheel-release levers are no longer being sold, the plaintiffs' attorneys say, but many of them are in use. Wal-Mart says the bicycles in question -- mostly mountain bikes known as Next Ultra Shock and Next Shock Zone that had mechanisms allowing their front wheels to be removed with a hand lever -- are safe as long as they are "properly used." A company spokesman said that the bikes' quick-release feature has never been the subject of a recall or safety citation and that similar mechanisms are on millions of bicycles sold in the United States. "Our view of the facts is substantially different from the plaintiffs'," Wal-Mart spokesman Marty Heires said. Lawyers for the retailer and the importer of the bikes argued Friday that the plaintiffs' attorneys have gathered a wide variety of claims involving many makes and models of bicycles without showing a common link. "The problem is we have multiple allegations of multiple defects," Robert Phillips, an attorney for Wal-Mart, said during a pretrial hearing Friday. "There's no evidence that any of these claims have any similarities." Fletcher Alford, an attorney representing Dynacraft as well as insurance administrator Carl Warren & Co. of Orange, declined to comment in detail about the lawsuit but said, "They believe these claims have no merit, and they expect to be vindicated at trial." Under federal law, importers, distributors, retailers and manufacturers are required to tell regulators about anything "that could be a substantial product hazard or has injured or killed a consumer," said U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson. The firms are left to determine which injuries were caused by defects. Wolfson said the safety commission is investigating the parents' claims of defective quick-release levers. He declined to elaborate, saying the investigation is active. The parents, meanwhile, have started a Web site (shokbikes.org) warning others about the bicycles. The parents' lawyers say they do not object to quick-release systems in general. But the suit alleges that most of the families didn't receive manuals warning that "correct adjustment of the axle nuts or quick-release levers is vitally important to avoid an accident caused by loose wheels." The bikes were assembled by untrained Wal-Mart workers, according to the suit, and lacked adequate backup systems to keep front wheels in place. Eric Hjertberg, manager of new technology for Full Speed Ahead, an internationally respected bicycle component-maker, said quick releases on bicycles have generated at least as much litigation over the years as all other bicycle parts combined. As a result, manufacturing standards have improved dramatically and, Hjertberg said, it is now very unlikely that one would release on its own or after hitting a bump. Other safety devices, such as notches on fork tips dubbed "lawyers lips," have been developed to prevent wheels from falling off in the event of quick-release lever malfunctions. "A quick release is a pretty sound system when it is correctly installed," Hjertberg said. "It is extremely reliable. The fact that they are used in the Tour de France and the Olympics shows that they are built using the highest standards. But I would agree that without the instructions, there would be greater risk." Wal-Mart and Dynacraft knew of problems with the front wheels but continued to sell the bikes, the Marin lawsuit alleges. None of the parents were told that similar accidents had occurred on the bikes imported by Dynacraft, and as a result, some of them accepted small cash settlements for medical costs, according to the suit. Anthony McCurdy's mother said she accepted $5,000. Ryan May-Carman crashed in March 2003 while riding his mountain bike over a speed bump on his way to the library in Melbourne, Fla. The boy, who is now 15 and lives in San Jose, had stitches where his top two front teeth -- which broke in half -- tore through his upper lip. He's still awaiting permanent crowns for his teeth. His mother, Cynthia May-Carman, said a Wal-Mart manager at first declined to do anything for her but produced a claim form when she brought up medical costs. She's been dealing with insurance adjusters since then. Her son's Boy Scout master, who had inspected the bike before a ride, was interviewed. But she never got a refund for the bike. For more than two years, Wal-Mart has been reporting defective products under specific rules adopted after the company was accused of failing to report instances in which customers were injured while trying exercise equipment in stores. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, meanwhile, fined Dynacraft $1.4 million a year ago after accusing the company of failing to report defective forks on the steering column of hundreds of thousands of mountain bikes. Those bikes are not the ones targeted in the lawsuit alleging faulty front-wheel releases. The penalty was assessed after five recalls over the course of 18 months. According to the commission, Dynacraft continually underreported injuries, including concussions, broken bones and a blood clot in one rider's brain, and failed to pull defective bikes from store shelves in a timely manner. Anthony's mother, Sandy Huber, said she regrets that she didn't take her son's bike back sooner after he crashed in September 2000. She said he had to tighten the lever on the quick-release mechanism almost every time he went for a ride. Her then-husband also tried to fix it. After the crash, she said, an insurance adjuster sent her a letter telling her that her son had been negligent. "I think that's a bunch of B.S.," Anthony said. "I just used the bike to ride from place to place."