Not the First Time

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2004-03-08 Print this article Print

In this case, a St. Louis company, Multidata Systems International, has found itself in and out of courts in two countries for much of the past three years, fending off charges that its product is at fault in a score of fatalities. The deaths occurred more than 2,000 miles from its home, at an installation of a customer it claims it did not even know it still had-until the death toll began mounting.

Now Multidata may face judgments that could damage-if not destroy-the company itself, if the firm is found guilty and is forced to pay damages sought by the victims. No one can accurately predict the amount Multidata would have to pay if the victims succeed in suing in the U.S. So far the plaintiffs have failed. But each of the 28 victims could be entitled to as much as $500,000 to $1 million of compensation for such factors as pain and suffering, lost wages and the number and age of surviving dependents, according to Brian Kerley, a defense attorney at a leading New York malpractice firm.

Using those numbers, Multidata could be facing total damages in the range of $14 million to $28 million. Multidata, which is privately held, says it has about $2 million in annual sales and fewer than 15 employees.

That company could just as well be your company, whether you write software in small or large teams; and whether you operate domestically or in multiple nations in a rapidly globalizing economy. You are at risk if you place your product in conditions where human lives are at stake. Indeed, its not the first time that software has been a suspect in a series of unexpected fatalities.

In the mid-1980s, poor software design in another radiation machine, known as the Therac-25, contributed to the deaths of three cancer patients.

The Therac-25 was built by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which is a Crown corporation of the government of Canada. In 1988, the company incorporated and sold its radiation-systems assets under the Theratronics brand. There does not appear to be any formal investigation of the Therac-25 accidents, but according to an in-depth examination by Nancy Leveson, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the accounts of other software experts, the design flaws included the inability of the software to handle some of the data it was given and the delivery of hard-to-decipher user messages.

In a twist of fate, Theratronics, which was ultimately acquired by the Canadian life-sciences company MDS, manufactured the radiation-therapy machine used at the cancer institute in Panama.

In February 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, an Iraqi SCUD missile hit a U.S. Army barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 Americans. The approach of the SCUD should have been noticed by a Patriot missile battery. A subsequent government investigation found a flaw in the Patriots weapons-control software, however, that prevented the system from properly tracking the missile.

More recently, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Patriot missile system mistakenly downed a British Tornado fighter and, according to the Los Angeles Times and other reports, an American F/A-18c Hornet.

The pilot in the single-seat Hornet and the two crew members aboard the British jet were killed. The incidents are still under investigation, but Pentagon sources familiar with the Hornet incident told the L.A. Times that investigators were looking at a glitch in the missiles radar system that made it incapable of properly distinguishing between a friendly plane and an enemy missile.

Raytheon, the maker of the Patriot missile system, did not want to comment on the 1991 incident. It also said the government was still investigating the more recent incidents and that reports the software may be at fault were "off base."

Next Page: Software anomaly in U.S. tilt-rotor aircraft partial cause of crash.


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