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February 1999 Vol. 14, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Aladin Air-X Nitrox Safety Questioned

two million dollar verdict against Uwatec

from the February, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A Greenville SC jury has rendered a $2 million verdict against Uwatec, the Swiss manufacturer of dive computers, for conspiracy, slander, and outrage in a suit filed by two former employees that has called into question the safety of Uwatec Aladin Air-X Nitrox model dive computers manufactured prior to 1996. Uwatec has filed an appeal in the case. Officials are also investigating whether Uwatecs president and CEO, Bret C. Gilliam, obstructed justice, committed perjury, and then directed an employee to commit perjury during the trial.

Problems began when Uwatec fired its U.S. sales office managers, Frank H. Marshall and Patricia Daugherty, in April, 1996, purportedly because the office had lost money and the company had decided to hire a new management team. A month later, Uwatec filed a report with the Greenville SC sheriffs office accusing Marshall and Daugherty of breach of trust and computer crimes, then said it had determined that the acts had been committed by another employee and it had decided not to press charges.

Marshall and Daugherty, however, contend that they were set up and that they were not fired because of wrong-doing. (In fact, Marshall told Undercurrent he was an employee they offered their job back to, and that this fact was a matter of court record.) Rather, the employees say they were fired because they pressed for a recall of up to 180 pre-1996 Aladin Air-X Nitrox dive computers that they believe are defective. They allege that an algorithmic error in the computer could result in an artificially low calculation of the users blood nitrogen levels. (According to the plaintiffs expert witness, Dr. Bob Ling, when the Nitrox computer is set to dive at whatever EAN%, e.g., 40% O2, the algorithm continues to calculate at that percentage during the surface interval (instead of the correct 21% for air).... Over several repetitive dives, the cumulative effect could easily lead to decompression illness if a diver takes the reading to be diagnostically correct.) Ling reports that he tested a purportedly defective unit and a unit manufactured in March of 1996 in a pressure pot and on independent dives on a live-aboard trip doing four or five dives per day. He states that his lab test (after 3 repetitive dives of 30 minutes with 1 hr. surface interval each) produced a desat discrepancy of 13 hrs. and a no-fly discrepancy of 8 hrs. The real dives on the live-aboard produced much larger discrepancies cumulatively after 4 days. Uwatec contends that Ling acknowledged that a deviation in one unit was in no way proof that an entire series of units have the same deviation and that there were many different reasons deviations might occur in dive computers.

Uwatec states that it stands by the safety record of the Aladin Air X Nitrox and that it has never received any report, notice, complaint, correspondence or other information indicating any potential defect in the Aladin Air X Nitrox units aside from the allegations of two terminated Uwatec employees. Furthermore, Uwatec has conducted comprehensive in-house hyperbaric chamber testing on several of the allegedly defective units and these test results indicate no defect in the product. One of the plaintiffs contacted the Compliance Board of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding the possible defect, and Uwatec responded to the complaint by furnishing their test results and stating that they have received no other complaints about the units. To date, Uwatec has not received a response from the Commission.

The perjury allegations stem from Gilliams testimony at the slander and conspiracy trial that Uwatec had no pre-1996 Air-X Nitrox dive computers for the plaintiffs to test against reliable computer units to see whether the pre-1996 units gave unsafe or erroneous readings. When two of Uwatecs dealers testified that they had recently returned pre-1996 units to Gilliam and another employee testified that Gilliam had at least two units sitting on his desk, the court ordered an investigation on charges of perjury. Further, according to the transcript of the sanctions hearing against Gilliam held in September, the court has also ordered an investigation of Gilliam for suborning perjury, perjury, and obstruction of justice during the course of the trial.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Pat Paschal, noted in the record that Gilliams actions were compounded by the fact that the testimony indicated that a diver using [a] defective unit...if it went wrong on him to cause injury for him he would never know it went wrong. The only way to tell if they went wrong is to compare one against the other.... The testimony was that Bret Gilliam told Frank Marshall dont worry about this, it is a conservative mistake, no one will get hurt. ...[T]hat has been their entire approach in this case... [T]heir motive behind failing to cooperate is if someone gets hurt they will never know what caused it. Their motive is not that they have done wrong, but that they just cant get caught doing it. The court also observed that Uwatec hoped to sell the company for 25 million dollars.

When Undercurrent spoke to Gilliam about the suit prior to the perjury investigation, he characterized it as a complaint by disgruntled employees that began prior to his tenure with Uwatec. However, according to counsel for the parties to the suit, final settlement proposals are currently being drafted, but the dollar amount and other terms are not being disclosed. Uwatecs new owner, Johnson World Wide Associates, has moved the company to California without him and most of the staff.

While Uwatec maintains that the computers have no problems, users who are concerned about whether their Aladin computer is safe to use should note that the alleged algorithmic error affected only Aladin Air-X Nitrox computers tested prior to 1996. Aladin computers have the test date printed on the back of the wrist unit in a MM.YY format, with 10.95 indicating a unit tested in October, 1995. The purportedly defective algorithm is reportedly not incorporated in the Aladin Pro Nitrox or any of the other Aladin Air-X or non-air-integrated Aladin models. Should users wish to contact Uwatec, they can be reached at 011-41-62-777-29-40 or by fax at 011-41-62-777-22-80. Their website address is www.uwatec.com.

John Q. Trigger

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