The defendants say that any front-wheel failures associated with the bicycles are most likely a result of improper assembly, parental neglect, failure to adjust the quick-release device, or children's neglect or abuse of the bikes.I know from experience that many people don't know how to operate quick-release levers -- I once showed a new commuter how to take off her front wheel in order to lock it up alongside the frame. It hardly bears mentioning that her bike was a cheap brand such as those sold at Wal-Mart. Any decent bike shop would never let you roll the bike out the front door without explaining how the quick-release mechanism works. Even if you think you know, they'll probably show you again just to be sure. No one at Wal-Mart is going to tell you about important things like properly using and adjusting your front wheel's quick-release.
But this court case offered an even better reason not to buy a Wal-Mart bike. The jury was given a bicycle to examine in order to understand how the quick-release works. About five hours into their deliberations, a juror broke the quick-release lever! Oops. That couldn't have helped Wal-Mart's defense. And according to a press release put out on behalf of the plaintiffs, "The bicycle came straight out of the box and had never been ridden."
Discount store and department store bikes are the Yugos of the bicycle industry. Sure, they are cheap, but you get an unreliable product that should not be trusted. Parents, would you buy your daughter the cheapest "beater" on the used-car lot for her to drive home from work at night? Of course not. Then why do so many people put their kids on these dangerous bikes just to save a few bucks?
As one who writes about cycling on the Web, I get many e-mails asking, "What bike should I buy?" My answer is always the same: always buy from a bike shop (unless you're buying something fancy via mail-order like a Bike Friday) and start out with the cheapest bicycle built by a well-known, well-regarded manufacturer. Companies like Trek, Giant, Cannondale and Specialized cannot afford to have their good reputations destroyed by inferior products. The cheapest Trek mountain bike will be far better than the fanciest full-suspension $100 Wal-Mart bike. And when you consider that the Trek will last as long as several Wal-Mart bikes in succession, it really doesn't cost more money than the cheap bike. You can certainly spend a lot more and get an even better bike, but buying a good brand is the bare minimum. And no, Huffy is not considered a good brand. Go to a bike shop. Trust me on this.
UPDATE - 02/12/2006 - Well, it looks like Wal-Mart won their case despite the broken quick-release. The jury voted 11-1 that it was the fault of the kids and parents. Without knowing the details of the case, I suspect this was an example of one side winning largely because they could afford better lawyers. Ironically, a high-profile Wal-Mart lawyer said in his closing argument, "Theories are a dime a dozen. Where's the proof? Where's the data?" Uh, maybe that broken quick-release in the jury room was the proof? Regardless of the results of this case, their bikes are still junk. If the quick-release doesn't fail, something else will. And don't go crying to the local bike shop when that Wal-Mart bike breaks. It's not their fault you bought a pretty piece of scrap metal instead of a bicycle.