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Mythbusters Cannonball Accident: Insurance Risk Mitigation Failure?

Mythbusters sent a 30-pound cannonball into a residential neighborhood, destroying property but, happily, not killing anybody.

On Tuesday, members of Discovery Channel's Mythbusters program shot a 30-pound cannonball into a residential neighborhood. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but the cannonball, after rebounding off the ground, shot right through a house, passing through a bedroom where people were sleeping (without waking them). It then wrecked a homeowner's roof and ended up in a parked minivan after smashing through its window.

Mythbusters is a fascinating program because its hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and their assistants put claims about the world to the test: it uses physics, analysis, computation and practical demonstration to see how things actually work. They also regularly blow things up. The program's announcers and hosts continually emphasize safety, the frequently reference their insurance company (though not by name) and they carefully depict the risk mitigation efforts they make for each experiment. But this time, something clearly went amiss with their risk mitigation efforts. Savage and Hyneman were not present when the accident happened; members of the crew who were include Mythbusters regulars Kari Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci.

It's likely that the Mythbusters' insurance carrier approved the safety measures at the Alameda County Sheriff's Regional Training Center where the experiment was conducted. Unless the Mythbusters staff materially neglected approved safety measures, it's unlikely that the insurance company would deny the claim, which in any case is for a fairly low amount. The question is how appropriate those measures were.

It seems to me that risk mitigation should have been built around an appreciation of possible exposure resulting from the forces involved. That would mean a calculation of the inertia of the 30-pound projectile driven by the amount of propellant or explosive used to shoot it. The crew had placed water-filled garbage cans in the expected path of the projectile, and possibly they had been calculated to disperse the energy of the projectile. However, the shot missed the garbage can barricade and hit a concrete wall that provided very little resistance to the cannonball, as evidenced by the velocity at which it passed through the house. One could argue a "failure of imagination," as astronaut Frank Borman referred to the catastrophic Apollo 1 accident. However, this was not the first time a Mythbuster experiment involved a projectile taking an unexpected trajectory.

So what is this going to do to Mythbusters premium, assuming the show isn't cancelled? What procedures will change in how its carrier (or a new one) will assess risk mitigation measures?

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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