Quite the Cost: Expensive Mistakes Made Throughout History, Ranked

Photo Courtesy: Deepwater Horizon Response/Wikimedia Commons

Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. But not every mistake has the same impact.

Some mistakes turn out to be so costly and disastrous that they’ve made historic changes to the world around us. In order to know which mistakes are the most expensive throughout time, we’ve adjusted the grand totals for inflation.  

30. The Buckling Millennium Bridge – $45.6 Million

On June 10, 2000, London residents flocked to the River Thames to take their first steps across the newly constructed Millennium Bridge. As the bridge filled with people, it started to rock back and forth, swaying everyone in terror. The bridge was shut down almost immediately.

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Before it opened, engineers called the bridge “an absolute statement of our capabilities at the beginning of the 21st century.” They also failed to recognize that weight from heavy foot traffic would cause it to wobble. The $24 million dollar project required an additional $6.6 million to fix the mistake.

29. Tiger Woods Bogies His Marriage – $129 Million

In 2009, professional golfer Tiger Woods’ spotless career came to a screeching halt. Days after a National Enquirer article alleged he was cheating on his wife, Woods crashed his Escalade into a neighbor’s tree at 2:25 in the morning, signaling trouble was afoot. Soon women from all walks of life came forward to publicly confess their affairs with the sports star.

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After months of reports about his infidelities, Woods and wife Elin Nordegren divorced. The pair didn’t have a prenuptial agreement, and Nordegren walked away with $110 million of his $760 million dollar fortune. The fallout from the sex scandal also cost Woods several multi million dollar endorsement deals, so who knows how much it could have cost him in the end.

28. NASA’s Monumental Measurement Mistake – $192 Million

After a closely monitored, 10-month journey through space in 1999, NASA lost its Mars orbiter satellite. During a key operation, the wrong commands pushed the spacecraft too close to Mars’ atmosphere, where it likely burned into pieces. What could have caused this interplanetary blunder?

Photo Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Wikimedia Commons

It turned out some engineers had calculated the satellite’s coordinates using the imperial system of measurement, while other teams had used the metric system. This pricey lapse in communication caused the $125 million satellite to receive the wrong directional command and get sent fatally close to Mars.

27. A Florida Theme Park’s Unamusing Collapse – $196 Million

In late 1989, construction began on a 75-acre theme park in Four Corners, Florida. Only a few miles away from Walt Disney World, the $100 million project was going to be the sister site of China’s celebratory Splendid China park in Shenzhen. The park promised to incorporate miniature replicas of China’s greatest monuments and throw performances with 60 artists and dancers.

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It was a mistake none of the developers saw coming. Soon after opening, the Chinese-run park faced increasing backlash against perceived Communist Party propaganda. At the same time, the performers continuously escaped the park grounds to seek political asylum in America. Anti-Communist protests and statewide tourist bans caused the park to lose $9 million a year before closing a few years later in 2003.

26. The Legendary Lost Lotto Ticket – $215 Million

When you’ve been married to someone for more than 50 years, it takes a lot to really irritate one another. So imagine the incredible frustration one 70-year old woman felt in 2010 when she realized her husband threw out her $141 million dollar-winning lotto ticket.

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The Brit always wrote down her lotto numbers in a notebook because her husband had a habit of tossing out her tickets too early. When she saw reports that the winning lotto ticket was still at large, she realized the winning numbers matched her own. After flipping the house upside down countless times, the couple came to terms with the husband’s pesky habit of preemptively recycling lotto tickets.

25. A Stockbroker’s Serious Snafu – $295 million

In December of 2005, a small typing error caused a $225 million loss at the Tokyo Stock Exchange. A trader at Japanese company Mizuho Securities tried selling 610,000 shares at 1 yen, which equals less than a penny apiece, of a job recruiting firm.

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The trader was actually trying to sell 1 share at 610,000 yen, but got the numbers switched. A representative at Mizhuo Securities said another trader attempted to cancel the order three times. Unfortunately for them, the Stock Exchange said it doesn’t cancel any transactions, even if they’re executed by mistake.

24. New Jersey’s Failed Race to the Top – $469 Million

This $400 million mistake cost New Jersey an important grant. In 2010, Governor Chris Christie admitted a midlevel official made a clerical error in the state’s Race to the Top grant application. Instead of providing their 2008 and 2009 school budgets, the official offered their 2010 and 2011 budgets by mistake.

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In his press conference, Governor Christie initially took responsibility for the error, claiming, “I am not thrilled about it.” Later in the conference, he attempted to blame the Obama administration for failing to follow up with his state over its application error.

23. The Sinking Millennium Tower of San Francisco – $550 Million

In 2005, construction started in downtown San Francisco on the new Millennium Tower. At 645 feet, it would be the largest residential building in the city, complete with gorgeous views and high prices for wealthy residents. Construction was completed in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2016 that residents caught wind of the news: the tower was sinking.

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A building examination in 2016 revealed that the poorly planned building had already sank 16 inches and had tilted 6 inches at the top. By 2018, the numbers got worse. The $350 million behemoth now requires an additional $100 million in repairs to keep from collapsing.

22. A Controlled Fire That Got Out of Control – $1.5 Billion

A controlled burn is a wildfire set intentionally to safely preserve healthy wilderness and farmland. Unfortunately for the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, high winds and extreme drought in May 2000 turned a routine controlled burn into the disastrous Cerro Grande Fire.

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Booher/FEMA/Wikimedia Commons

Over 400 families lost their homes during the 150,000-acre fire. It took firefighters and emergency teams two and a half months to completely extinguish the flames.

The US General Accounting Office estimated total property damage hit roughly $1 billion.

21. The B-2 Bomber’s Billion Dollar Breakdown – $1.7 Billion

The Spirit of Kansas, a United States Air Force stealth-strategic bomber, met its untimely end in February of 2008. The B-2 bomber had previously logged 5,100 flight hours, but it crashed mere moments after takeoff from an air base in Guam.

Photo Courtesy: United States Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

According to investigations, “heavy, lashing rains” caused moisture to enter its air-data sensors. Both pilots were fortunate enough to eject themselves from the plane before impact.

But for the most expensive military device to crash that easily, it goes to show that high cost doesn’t always equate to high quality.

20. A Californian’s Colossal Calamity – $1.7 Billion

A rookie hunter got lost in the woods of West Covina, California in 2003 and made a terrible mistake when he tried calling for help. Instead of firing off shots or lighting a flare, the man chose to start a small brush fire to attract attention. His rescue attempt resulted in the 273,000 acre Cedar Fire.

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When the fire was fully extinguished two months later, it had destroyed 2,820 buildings and killed 15 people. The man received a sentence of 960 hours of community service and a fine of nine thousand dollars. The Cedar Fire remains one of the largest wildfires in California’s history.

19. Quaker’s Thirst for Snapple – $2.4 Billion

In 1994, Snapple was everywhere. The beverage company was making waves with its natural flavors and charismatic Snapple Lady commercials. Quaker Oats Co. thought Snapple was a strong contender to compete against big soda juggernauts and purchased Snapple for $1.7 billion.

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Unfortunately for Quaker, giant soda brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi began making their own copycat brands before Snapple could reach mass consumers. Three years later, Quaker Oats agreed to sell Snapple for a paltry $300 million. It was one of the worst corporate-merger flops in history.

18. One Bank Executive’s Enormous Error – $2.8 Billion

In 1983, Toshihide Iguchi was an Executive VP and U.S. Government bond trader at Daiwa Bank’s New York branch. While at work, Iguchi lost $70,000 by mistake during a routine trade of Federal Reserve Notes. In an effort to keep his job and protect his reputation, Iguchi concealed this hefty loss.

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He continued trading and attempted to recoup the funds, but his loss began to snowball. Years of investigations and dirty deals ensued, until Iguchi wrote a confession letter to the president of the bank. At the time of his confession, the loss was in excess of $1 billion. Iguchi later served several years in prison for concealing his gigantic mistake.

17. Nuclear Meltdown at Three Mile Island – $2.95 Billion

On March 28, 1979, the worst nuclear disaster in American history occurred at Three Mile Island’s Nuclear Generating Station. An early morning malfunction triggered the partial nuclear meltdown, but it could have been avoided. Operators reportedly ignored many warning signs that led to the malfunction.

Photo Courtesy: Z22/Wikimedia Commons

Its aftermath brought sweeping changes to all nuclear power plant operations and regulatory oversight. Thankfully, no one died from the nuclear meltdown, and radioactive contamination stayed within the plant. However, the price tag for the cleanup was a hefty $837 million.

16. George Lucas’ Lucrative Loss – $3.4 Billion

George Lucas is the iconic brain behind the Star Wars franchise. However, before Lucas became the success story he is today, film studios were reluctant to bring his vision to life. In order for Lucas to produce Star Wars, he had to sign over merchandising rights to 20th Century Fox.

Photo Courtesy: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons

A reluctant Lucas went through with the deal and the rest is history. Before 1980, Star Wars action figures had generated over $100 million in revenue. By 2011, their revenue surpassed $3 billion. I wouldn’t worry about Lucas. He’s still worth a cool $6.6 billion without the toys.

15. The Explosion at The Piper Alpha Oil Rig – $7.3 Billion

The Piper Alpha was Britain’s largest oil and gas producing platform, bringing in over 300,000 barrels of crude oil each day. On July 6, 1988 in the North Sea, gas leaked out of a temporary cover and set the rig ablaze. It quickly became the world’s deadliest oil rig accident ever.

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The explosion killed 167 people and cost $3.4 billion in repairs. Only 61 members of the crew survived the explosion and subsequent fire that went on for hours afterwards. An investigation revealed the operator, Occidental Petroleum, used inadequate maintenance and safety procedures.

14. Exxon Valdez’s Disastrous Oil Spill – $9 Billion

On the evening of March 23, 1989, Exxon Valdez left Alaska for California with 53 million gallons of crude oil onboard. Late at night, the ship struck a well-known navigation hazard in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The ship’s hull was instantly punctured, leaking 11 million gallons of crude oil into the water.

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Witnesses first pointed the blame at Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the ship, who was drinking the night of the crash. However, it emerged later that Hazelwood had allowed an unlicensed crew member to steer the ship, resulting in the historic disaster. The spill caused $4.4 billion in damages and clean up along 1,300 miles of coastline.

13. Morgan Stanley’s Mortgage Market Meltdown – $11.1 Billion

Howie Hubler was responsible for the single largest trading loss in Wall Street history. While at Morgan Stanley, the former bond trader purchased risky subprime mortgages. His risky behavior resulted in a massive net loss of almost $9 billion, contributing to the financial chaos of the 2008 Recession.

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To offset the original risk, Hubler sold insurance on AAA-rated mortgages that were less risky, but were also completely worthless. This financial juggling was the root cause of the loss that nearly shut the firm down entirely. To this day, Hubler refuses interviews about his time at Morgan Stanley.

12. The Challenger Explosion – $13 Billion

The ill-fated launch of NASA’s Challenger space shuttle lasted for 73 seconds before completely exploding. All seven of the astronauts died in the wreckage, including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who would have been the first civilian in space. Televisions across the country broadcast the historic launch, and viewers of all ages watched the chaos in real time.

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On the night before the 1986 crash, a cold front swept across Florida, impacting the rocket boosters enough to set the ship ablaze. After intense investigations, a pattern of important regulatory oversights were revealed to be the cause of the explosion. In addition to the loss of the astronauts onboard, the Challenger explosion cost $5.5 billion in damages.

11. The Columbia Shuttle Catastrophe – $18 Billion

On the Columbia’s 28th and final takeoff from Earth, foam insulation broke off and damaged the shuttle’s left wing. Several members of NASA pushed for a closer look to see if the damage was crucial, but senior officials declined further investigation and the mission continued as normal.

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The seven-member crew spent 16 days in space, conducting science experiments all day long in rotating shifts. Unfortunately, upon returning to Earth, the damage to the wing was powerful enough to leak flammable gasses into the shuttle and the ship exploded upon reentry. All seven crew members died in the explosion, and NASA lost its $13 billion dollar ship.

10. France’s Fuller Train Fail – $22.2 Billion

The French Railway Train Company ordered 2,000 new trains in 2014 with more modern features and custom dimensions. The problem? The new trains were too wide to fit in some of the more regional stations. The train company failed to take into account that some of the older train stations from 50 years ago had much smaller measurements.

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The new trains already cost $20 billion to produce, so it was impossible to scrap them and start new trains from scratch. Instead, the train company spent an additional $68 million to reconfigure the older station platforms.

Miscommunication between the train company and the rail operators was to blame for this transportation blunder.

9. Russia’s Alaskan Deal Gone South – $37 Billion

The Alaskan Purchase was America’s acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867. Then Russian Emperor Alexander II of Russia deemed the Alaskan territory too difficult to defend in case of invasion and was looking to sell. For $7.2 million, the United States acquired Alaska from Russia, but little did anyone know how valuable the property actually was.

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At the time, many skeptics thought the land was useless. However, the 375 million acres of property produce hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each year, among other valuable natural resources in Alaska. Even if an acre were priced at $100 each, that would equate to more than a $37 billion valuation.

8. Scott Thompson’s Tech Troubles – $60 Billion

In 2012, former Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson was not well regarded by investors. He needed to do something to get back into their good graces and save the company. In a bold move, Thompson sold 20% of Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba. At that time, Alibaba was a private company with a $30 billion valuation.

Photo Courtesy: Yahoo/Wikimedia Commons

Only a few years later, Alibaba is a public company valued at $300 billion. In hindsight, Thompson’s decision to sell cost the company $54 billion in losses. Yahoo is currently valued at $48 billion, so you can imagine the company’s frustrations with Thompson.

7. The Disaster at Deepwater Horizon – $71 Billion

Transocean and British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig was responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. waters in April, 2010. An uncontrollable blowout caused an explosion on the semi-submersible rig that instantly killed 11 crewmen. Two days later, the Horizon sank, with oil gushing from the sea floor into the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo Courtesy: Joe Raedle/Getty

Flawed designs, unsafe operating procedures, and cost cutting measures all led to this environmental catastrophe. Chief executive of BP Tony Hayward resigned in shame, and the company spent $60.9 billion to clean up the 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf.

6. Ron Wayne’s Sour Apples – $95 Billion

He’s the equivalent of the ‘fifth Beatle’. Ron Wayne had the potential to be a household name like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple. Wayne joined the Apple co-founders to oversee mechanical engineering and documentation in exchange for a 10% stake in the company.

Photo Courtesy: Stoopkitty/Wikimedia Commons

At the early stage of Apple, Wayne grew weary about incurring any of the company’s debts. Being 20 years older than Jobs and Wozniak, Wayne felt out of place, and sold his 10% stake for $800. Today, that same stake in Apple would be worth more than $95 billion, making him one of the richest people in the world.

5. AOL’s Dot Com Bust – $141 Billion

It was the biggest corporate merger of all time. In 2000, AOL acquired Time Warner, the largest media and entertainment conglomerate, for $162 billion. The merger was at the forefront of the dot-com bubble at the turn of the new millennium, but excitement over the purchase didn’t last long.

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A few months after the deal closed, the bubble burst, and the hybrid company collapsed under its own heavy weight. The highly sought after advertising dollars disappeared, and AOL was losing subscribers and subscription revenue. The company went from a $226 billion valuation to $20 billion in two short years.

4. Blockbuster’s Big Blunder – $157.3 Billion

Before Netflix was the streaming giant it is today, it was a DVD-by-mail rental company in the early 2000s. The struggling company was nothing like the dominant entertainment behemoth it is today, and it needed support. That’s why Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings reached out to Blockbuster in hopes of getting acquired by the reigning rental business.

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The deal was simple: acquire Netflix and all of it its assets for $50 million in a clean purchase. But Blockbuster passed on the deal as Netflix was rapidly losing money. After several attempts to get purchased, Netflix gave up and forged ahead without them, becoming the $157 Billion force they are today.

3. Fukushima’s Nuclear Disaster – $212.9 Billion

As a result of a major earthquake in Japan in March 2011, a 48-foot tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The impact of the water disabled the power supply and resulted in a nuclear meltdown in all three reactors. But could this have been avoided?

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Tokyo Electric Power Company and its regulators repeatedly ignored growing concerns about the stability of the aging power plant. The ignored repairs to the plant resulted in $187 billion in damages, and over 100,000 nearby residents had to evacuate their homes.

2. Excite passed on Google: $748 Billion

In 1999, dot-com era champion Yahoo was leading the pack in search engine sites. Its second place competitor, Excite.com, had the opportunity of a lifetime to expand its business. For a mere $750,000, Excite could have purchased young upstart Google. Excite passed on the offer.

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In order for Google to be acquired, they had some demands. Excite CEO George Bell confessed Google wanted, “to rip out all the Excite technology and replace it with Google’s search.” That’s where the deal fell apart. Bell wanted to keep the technology his engineers built and maintain its tech-focused office culture. Google’s parent company Alphabet is currently worth $748 billion.

1. The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster – $836 Billion

The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukrainian SSR is the largest nuclear meltdown in history. During a safety test in 1986, a considerable number of oversights contributed to an unexpected power surge at the Soviet power plant. The surge resulted in an explosion and subsequent fire that emitted radioactive waste through the smoke.

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Almost 50,000 people were initially evacuated, with 70,000 more removed in addition as the evacuation zone spread. It’s estimated to have cost $358 billion in cleanup and loss of agricultural productivity. The true total impact Chernobyl has had on human and natural life in the aftermath remains a mystery.