Great Idea: Using Social Media or Online Forums to Warn of Defects and Dangerous Conditions

By Cory Bilton

Memorial Bridge 1

“We didn’t know it was dangerous.” This is the response you will get in almost every case involving a dangerous product or hazardous condition that causes someone to be injured. Whether we are talking about faulty ignition switches, contaminated spinach, or uneven pavement, the initial response is nearly always that the danger was not known. Without knowledge of the danger, there was no way to prevent the harm. So the argument goes.

Currently, it is very difficult to discover whether other people have been injured by the same defect or hazardous condition. If we could harness our joint experiences with a product or place, we would have earlier warnings of danger. An article in the New York Times last weekend highlighted the work of researchers at Virginia Tech in trying to solve this early warning problem. Researchers created data mining programs to search online automotive forums looking for words and phrases that might indicate someone talking about a possible car defect. Once flagged, these posts could be categorized and looked at more closely. By looking at a large number of individual posts that all refer to a similar problem or circumstance, car manufacturers and government regulators might have earlier warning that a particular vehicle model has a defect.

The Sullivan v. AboveNet case I mentioned earlier this week provides a good example of a hazardous condition where social media or online forums could provide early warning. In Sullivan, the plaintiff tripped and fell on uneven pavement surrounding a manhole cover while he was crossing North Capitol Street at F Street, in Washington, DC. The case is unusual because someone came forward to testify she had tripped on that same uneven pavement just a couple weeks before. But it’s pretty rare to know someone who was hurt or nearly hurt on the same tripping hazard that caught you. And yet, how many pedestrians have walked through that intersection and noticed the same hazardous condition? Probably plenty. It is just hard to find them.

I can think of numerous examples of commonplace hazards that cause preventable injuries: a loose steel plate covering a sidewalk hole near a construction site, a wobbly handrail, slippery floors with no warning signs.  These are hazards many people notice, but few say anything about.

Two things would happen if we could be warned of hazardous conditions or defective products through social media or online forums. First, fewer people would be injured, because dangerous conditions would be more likely to be fixed. Second, people injured by a hazardous condition that someone else had already warned about would have a better chance of finding justice through the legal system.

Providing earlier warning of dangerous conditions is a problem that our increasing connectivity is uniquely suited to fix. Imagine a simple app that would allow you to use your smartphone to snap a picture, select the type of hazard from a list, and then automatically notify the responsible party of the hazard. Arlington County already has an app just like this that allows people to report problems to the county, such as potholes, fallen trees, or broken parking meters. Especially in urban environments such as Washington, DC, it seems this type of app could be extremely useful if it covered not only government property, but private property and businesses as well. As the New York Times article pointed out, both governments and industry have incentives to push for further development of this kind of early warning and detection technology. Whether this is a future innovation waiting to happen or just the wistful hopes of a personal injury lawyer remains to be seen.

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