Published: April 6, 2022

Like all engineers, Professor Michael Readey has a passion for solving problems. Throughout his career in product development, he has worked on projects ranging from designing medical components used to separate blood cells to implementing large-scale biogas at massive landfill sites. However, the creative and elegant solutions employed in developing products can sometimes end up in unfamiliar territory for engineers—the courtroom. As a professor in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Engineering Management Program (EMP), Readey now helps engineers anticipate challenges relating to engineering, law and product liability.

"It's important that we prepare students for the commercial and legal aspects of developing engineering projects in a robust and reliable way," says Readey. "That's very much what the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management at CU Boulder is all about."

Improving Engineers’ Communication Skills

In many ways, CU Boulder’s engineering management degree is designed to break students out of their engineering silos. This approach can be seen throughout the Program.

“I’ve just finished a product development course where the idea is to explore how large companies develop new products,” says Readey. “The class starts off by trying to identify a problem. The students blast through that part really fast because they want to get to the technical solution.”

At this stage, Readey steps in to apply the brakes.

“We slow that whole process down, which frustrates them a little bit because they want to jump right to the technical answer,” says Readey. “I actually make them interview potential customers to see if they share the same vision of what the problem is. Often, they walk away thinking, ‘Oh, I had no idea this was the real problem.’ It's an enlightening experience.”

According to Readey, for many engineers, talking to somebody outside of their own technical environment can be anxiety-producing.

“Once they do it two or three times, all of a sudden that kind of anxiety breaks down, and then it becomes a much more natural process,” says Readey. “It's fascinating to watch them evolve through courses like that.”

The anxiety felt by many engineers when communicating with people outside of their technical silos is amplified when dealing with individuals from a completely different professional field. This is particularly true in more complex and potentially unfamiliar environments—like law.

Engineering and Law: Learning a New Language

According to Readey, the impact of engineering, law and product liability is something engineering students rarely get to investigate.

"In traditional engineering classes, at the undergraduate or even graduate level, students never really talk about those kinds of legal issues," says Readey. "It's all very technically oriented, which of course, is fine. But in an industrial environment, as you start to progress up the ladder, one of the things that you discover is that you do less and less of fundamental engineering work. Instead, engineers as managers increasingly look at commercial and legal aspects  relating to their work."

When it comes to learning about legal issues, Readey compares the challenges engineering management students face with learning a new language.

"When compared to something like computational fluid dynamics, or looking at finance and how you calculate it, using simple spreadsheets is relatively straightforward from an engineer’s standpoint," says Readey. "However, when it comes to engineering law, it's a different language. I'm not trying to turn people into corporate lawyers, but they're going to be talking to people in the legal profession, and they need to speak their language."

While Readey’s goal is not to turn engineers into lawyers, he does admit that the experience can lead some students to pursue a legal career.

“One of the people who helped us get this course off the ground is a practicing attorney,” says Readey. “He was an aeronautical engineer himself in his early days. But, unfortunately, he learned that engineers could sometimes only facilitate change in a product’s design after a catastrophic event. So he realized early on that he could have a bigger impact on product design in the courtroom.”

Just like language students benefit from practicing with native speakers, Readey uses a similar technique to teach his students about product liability. He does this by bringing together engineering management students with students from CU Boulder’s Colorado Law school.

"As engineers, we can get really intimidated by the idea of talking about the various steps in the litigation processes to a lawyer," says Readey. "We have all these preconceived ideas of what being a lawyer is all about. On the other side, the lawyers are intimidated by the engineers because they think they don't know anything compared to the engineers. So what happens when you get these two groups working together is that they find common ground and discover they both know their stuff and are actually really nice people."

Readey describes the process of bringing engineering management and law students together as "a lot of fun."

"It changes the whole dynamic of what the class is all about," says Readey. "It becomes much more group-oriented. It's enjoyable to watch."

What Is Product Liability?

“Product liability is basically when things break before you expect them to break, and that product failure has some adverse impacts,” says Readey. “In the engineering realm, we talk about designing and developing new products, and we do all this really sophisticated modeling. But sometimes, there's something we don't anticipate, and that will cause the product to fail.”

When things break, the scale of the problem can be anywhere from reputational to, in the case of something like a jet engine, potentially catastrophic.

“We have engineers and law students sitting in the same room, and we talk about what happens after a product is out there in the marketplace, and what happens if things don't go according to plan,” says Readey.

According to Readey, the class is designed to help engineers transition to the role of expert witnesses in the event of a product failure.

“They talk about failure mechanisms and how to explain that to a lay jury,” says Readey. “Then they look at how they might work with legal teams on both sides of the equation for resolving a particular issue.”

Readey explains that this is a very different environment than many engineers are used to.

“Sitting in a courtroom as an expert witness, getting asked questions from both sides, can be a daunting experience,” says Readey. “This course helps to overcome some of that anxiety by getting a little bit of practice and knowing how the process works. The engineers walk away from the course experiencing a whole different side of engineering.”

The law students, who are all in their second or third year of law school at CU Boulder, also enjoy the experience of honing their legal skills in a simulated courtroom and dealing with challenges they may also face.

Engineering and Law: Determining Who Is at Fault

Readey explains that the law students are presented with a little bit of technical information so that they understand the language of why things fail before looking at a real example.

“The students were recently presented with a case where a carbon frame bicycle broke in half, injuring the rider,” says Readey. “The law students had to put together a case from both sides, the person that got hurt and the bicycle manufacturer, and argue who was really at fault here. So the class is literally a mock trial, where everybody gets to act like the jury, and the two attorneys get to grill the expert witness as to what was going on.”

On the scale of catastrophic failures, a broken bicycle frame might not be the most significant case of a defective product an engineering management or law student ever faces. Still, Readey insists that the scenario is scalable and provides a perfect introduction to what is product liability law.

“When Boeing was having trouble with its 737 Max aircraft, we had people from the aerospace world come in and give guest lectures,” says Readey. “One expert talked about the challenges with the MCAS system, which was the software that was causing the plane to do everything that it was not supposed to do. They talk about who was at fault. Was it the manufacturer, the FAA or the software developers? So yes, it was the same situation as the bicycle frame, just obviously at a much larger scale and with a lot more expert witnesses.”

How Does an Understanding of Liability Make Somebody a Better Engineer?

While many engineers typically don’t think about product failure and subsequent liability concerns for the company, Readey believes understanding the issue is essential for any engineer wanting to see the bigger picture beyond the technical elements of the project they are working on.

“What often happens in an industrial environment is an engineer is on a product development team working on just one piece of the problem,” says Readey. “So they design their piece, and that usually goes into a bigger system. When the design goes from the development phase to the implementation phase, the engineer goes off and starts work on the next product. They don't get too involved in things that happen after it's introduced into the field.”

Readey explains that as engineers progress into management positions, they have to look beyond their immediate sphere of influence.

“As managers, engineers need to start thinking about reliability-related issues,” says Readey. “If a product fails, what are the ramifications on the manufacturer and the people using that product? And so we talk about the risks and how you avoid those risks. It's a new experience for engineers to think about what happens after they do their product development job, and that's a really good experience for them.”

Where Does Product Liability Fit Into the Engineering Management Degree Program?

Product liability is an elective course that usually sits in the last third of the master’s Program.

“This would be a perfect fit right after students have taken their finance classes, their project management classes and their product development classes,” says Readey. “These are what I would call the fundamental courses, where they understand the product development process, the issues around the cost and pricing, and the commercial side of the product itself.

Readey has a very compelling elevator pitch to attract students to the elective course.

“It's an opportunity to work in a very different kind of environment than you might be used to as an engineer, and this can open up many more opportunities in your career. It's also an elective course for our law students who enjoy the course due to the practical nature of the work covered.”

Engineering Management at CU Boulder

According to Readey, the quality of the faculty is one of the biggest reasons why engineers should consider CU Boulder for their masters in engineering management.

“Nearly all of the professors who teach these courses are like me,” says Readey. “We’ve spent most of our life in industry. So we've actually done a lot of the things that we talk about. That's a huge advantage over what I would call the more traditional academic programs that are out there.”

Readey also highlights CU Boulder's close ties to the industry.

“The Boulder and Denver area is home to a lot of the aerospace world,” says Readey. “For instance, we have a company called Ball Aerospace, which is right next door to us. We have Lockheed Martin, which is just outside of Denver. We also have a very strong medical components community around us, and we're developing courses to really tailor the experience for our students in those industries and their professional environment.”

However, it’s the practical nature of the courses that Readey really likes to focus on.

“I really enjoy the practical nature of what we do,” says Readey. “Our goal is not to produce research papers for academic journals. Instead, our goal is to prepare engineers for leadership positions in their industry. And while I would say several  engineering management programs are like that, we're one of the few where that's our only focus.”

Learn More About Engineering Management

To learn more about how a Master of Engineering in Engineering Management from CU Boulder can help you better understand engineering law and product liability, visit the Engineering Management Program page. Alternatively, you can speak with an advisor or request more information by contacting: or call 303.492.0954.