4/17/2014

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Problem Solvers

Iconic Seattle company facing disturbing accusations

Iconic Seattle company facing disturbing accusations

SEATTLE -- REI.  It's a Seattle icon with a reputation for integrity.  But a KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation has uncovered a defect in that teflon reputation.  It involves dangerous bicycle crashes, serious injuries and legal attempt to avoid responsibility.  Our report centers on the REI-branded bike that some say has broken apart with riders on board.

David Ashmore. Monika Johnson. James Osborne.  All athletic, outdoor enthusiasts - with one thing in common.  In 2006 and 2007, their REI brand bikes broke apart while they were riding.

"I felt a shudder," says Ashmore -- the only rider able to tell us what happened.  "The bike is collapsing in front of me." 

He describes his crash in September of 2006: "All of a sudden I'm down, I'm trying to reach back up and I start listing over to my right and then I tumbled." 

Ashmore was riding a well-known route in his hometown of Austin, Texas. 

REI claims Ashmore told paramedics he hit a rock, but he says that's not what happened. 

"This accident wasn't the result of me hitting a curb or a rock or a pothole," he said.

Ashmore says the aluminum frame on his top-of-the-line, REI-brand Novara bike, "fractured in half."

"The policemen that were kind of giving me the bike said, 'we've never seen a bike like this before - you might want to check it out and see - see what the problem was,'" he said.

At the hospital, Ashmore got 13 stitches, he was diagnosed with a hairline fracture in his wrist, temporary nerve damage in his back, and a whole lot of road rash.  And he was lucky.  He settled quickly with REI for an undisclosed amount.

Neither Monika Johnson nor James Osborne can talk about their debilitating injuries.  Osborne's settlement with REI prevents him from discussing his accident.  Johnson died two years ago in an unrelated skiing accident near Snoqualmie Pass.  But all that occurred after years of REI fighting lawsuits from both of them.  Because even though REI sells the Novara brand bike as its own, the member-owned co-op argued any alleged defects were the responsibility of the Taiwan manufacturers.

"She felt betrayed," says Monika Johnson's brother Erik Peters.  "She was very very frustrated and angry and disappointed." 

A competitive skier and climber; Johnson once modeled for REI catalogs.  According to court documents, Johnson was riding her REI Novara bike on a Seattle sidewalk about five miles an hour when the front fork of her bike sheered off from the frame - sending her face-first into the pavement.  "Her upper face was being held together by wires," says her brother.  "It was quite traumatic and she was struggling to cope with it."

Two years after her crash, REI voluntarily recalled 260 similar bikes, but they still fought against responsibility for Johnson's crash in court. 

In spite of her serious facial injuries, both her brother Erik Peters and boyfriend Ryan Lurie say Johnson's traumatic brain injury was the most debilitating.  Peters: "It was a real loss, a large piece of her identity was severely compromised." 

Lurie says, "she could never sleep through the night."  Eventually Johnson returned to backcountry skiing - though with a full head helmet and without her former endurance.  And her family says she could never return to the full time work she loved as a physical therapist.  "She just couldn't handle the day to day stresses, psychological, anything that psychologically stressed her was really taxing on her and she couldn't recover quickly."

James Osborne worked for REI at their corporate headquarters in Kent.  His accident occurred during a regular lunch hour ride with fellow employees.

Osborne suffered an incomplete spinal injury - and according to an online blog - though he now walks with the help of a cane - he's far from the bike rider who once rode the most grueling hills of the Tour de France.

Photographs from court documents show his REI Novara bike came apart in virtually the same places as David Ashmore's ... REI insists it wasn't a frame failure but a stick caught in the spoke of his wheel.

In his deposition Osborne said, "others on the ride told me that a stick had gotten caught in the wheel of my bicycle and broke one spoke ... I had  no personal knowledge of any stick .... I certainly did not expect that the bicycle frame would catastrophically fail as it did after breaking a single spoke."

The Problems Solvers asked REI how many catastrophic bike failures they've had, if they've instituted any manufacturing changes and why, in the most serious cases, they've pushed product liability for REI-brand bikes onto its Taiwan manufacturers?  REI has declined to do an on camera interview, but in a written statement they answered none of those questions but did insist they have a strong record of proactively acting on safety issues with its products.

Monika Johnson's brother: "She was very frustrated that REI wouldn't take responsibility for their product."

On REI's website, a short video shows an REI employee in a signature green vest saying, "REI's 100% satisfaction guarantee means every item you purchase at REI will meet your high standards." 

In fact, REI is known for its famous guarantee and its promise of quality and integrity. 

But in pouring through court documents, the Problem Solvers found reports of at least two more cyclists with catastrophic frame failures and as many as 13 others who returned this type of REI bike due to frame-related problems. 

In those court files - REI experts tested similar aluminum frames and say they "did not approach failure" while Osborne experts say in tests with a sudden "deceleration" the "bicycle suffers a catastrophic structural ... failure". 

"Once I learned that it wasn't just me - it wasn't just Mr. Osborne, but apparently some others out there - yeah - I was a little disappointed in how REI had reacted," said David Ashmore from Texas.

The day after Monika Johnson's death, and three years after her crash, REI lost its legal appeal to avoid product liability.

"I wish my sister was alive," Peters said. "I wish they had taken responsibility and apologized to my sister - but she's not here."  Instead, Peters says his sister's legacy is that REI was forced to accept responsibility.  Legally, that may have helped James Osborne's case.  REI finally settled, five years after his crash.

But REI's reputation? "I think it's been tarnished a bit," Ashmore said. "A bit diminished."

In its written statement, REI added that there was no reason to recall the bike ridden by Osborne and Ashmore because there was no safety issue.  They add their, "products have a reputation for quality and reliability," and that, "all Novara bikes meet or exceed all industry safety and quality standards."

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