A Safety Expert Under FireDavid Greising
Normally, a project like this would cost Bruce Enz's company $20,000. But for Dateline NBC, he did it on the cheap: $5,000 to crash-test two GM pickup trucks. In the week he had to prepare, Enz got two pickups and two "bullet" vehicles to ram them with. One of the trucks had only a nylon stocking for a fan belt, the other a replacement gas cap, but they had to do. So, with their gas tanks topped off at 20 gallons and their frames wired with toy rocket engines to increase the likelihood of a fireball, Enz placed the trucks on a deserted Indiana road on Oct. 24, 1992. Then, he sent a driverless Chevy Citation into each one, aiming at the pickup's "sidesaddle" gas tank. But only one truck burned, just briefly. "The NBC people were clearly disappointed," Enz says.
Disappointment is the least of NBC Inc.'s problems now. On Feb. 9, the network, owned by General Electric Co., made a public apology for its role in the now infamous test crash. The smash-up is also a disaster for Enz's employer, the Institute for Safety Analysis (TISA). The company, which specializes in investigating and testifying about the causes of accidents and injuries, suddenly is in Detroit's cross hairs. "We are the ones that are getting hung out to dry," says Enz.
He has good reason to feel outgunned. General Motors Corp. is on the attack. Its targets: Enz's credentials, the professionalism of his company, and more broadly, the reliability of professional expert witnesses such as Enz, who travel around the country testifying about the allegedly faulty design and function of everything from seat belts to brakes to gas tanks.
ROUNDABOUT ROUTE. A look at Enz's background does raise questions about his claims of expertise. Enz, 47, has a bachelor's degree in Asian studies from the University of Illinois, but no engineering degree.
Enz's entree into accident reconstruction came in 1975, when he began a 16-month stint as a patrolman in rural Gibson City, Ill. He went on to work at two accident-investigation companies and took a two-week highway-collision course sponsored by the Transportation Dept. In 1980, Enz joined TISA. At TISA, where he holds the titles of chairman and chief operating officer as well as 50% of the company's stock, Enz has investigated some 3,500 accidents and testified more than 300 times. "GM may make disparaging remarks about Mr. Enz and his background, but it's their job to make someone who is going against them look as bad as they possibly can," says TISA President Andrew Ramisch.
Enz has become a regular on the expert-witness circuit. He has testified in more than 60 courts nationwide against every major carmaker operating in the U. S. He has suffered just two major setbacks. In 1983, a Prince Georges county (Md.) judge disqualified Enz as an expert, and in 1984, a Maryland federal judge dismissed a verdict favoring a woman who sued Volkswagen. "Enz did not present credible testimony," declared Judge Norman P. Ramsey.
Enz's fame as an expert witness led to his hiring by NBC. Michael G. Gartner, president of NBC News, says the episode has made NBC more wary of using independent testing companies. "When you have an outside person, you have to redouble your efforts" to ensure accuracy and balance, he says.
Enz is angry at NBC for caving in to GM and leaving the impression that he deceived the network about the tests. "At one end, they misled the public about GM," he says. "At the other end, they misled the public about their consultants." And he defends his role. "I would hope that we continue to be the people responsible for locating and identifying some of the problems in cars. And if injury is caused by those faults, the manufacturers should pay." This time, though, Enz and his colleagues are the ones blamed for doing faulty work.
THE INSTITUTE FOR SAFETY ANALYSIS
FORMED 1975 by Robert Brenner, former chief scientist at the Transportation Dept.'s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
ANNUAL REVENUE $2 million
OUTSIDE FUNDING None. A for-profit enterprise, TISA does not accept funding from outside sources, such as plaintiffs' lawyers
STAFF 13 full-time investigators from various disciplines, including three engineers
BILLING RATE $75 to $175 an hour for accident reconstruction and litigation work
CASE LOAD 300 a year