Million-Dollar Mishaps: The 15 Most Expensive Mistakes in Business

Most expensive mistakes ever made

We’ve all made our fair share of mistakes at work, as well as in our personal lives, but sometimes the cost of human error is a little hard to recoup from – at least in terms of finances.

From the typo that came with an $80 million bill, to the $15 billion train order that didn’t fit, or the winning lottery ticket that was nearly lost forever, we’ve uncovered the all time most spendy slip-ups. The next time you make a mistake with your digits and enter the wrong number, or toss something out, only to wish you hadn’t afterwards, be grateful that unlike our big-budget entries, you weren’t left with an exorbitant bill.

Whether it’s straightforward business mistakes, like selling off shares at the wrong time, or rudimentary design flaws that are unfortunately overlooked, read on as we reveal the top 15 most expensive mistakes that have ever been made…

1. French railway company ordered the wrong trains

French railway ordered wrong

15bn euros

When French train operator SNCF ordered 2,000 new trains, the company didn’t think they’d be making a costly error that would leave bosses feeling red faced – to the tune of over 50 million Euros!

The mistake was spotted when it was realised the purchased trains were too wide for most of France’s regional station platforms – but by then the chance had passed for the rail operator to get a refund. To add insult to injury, construction work to widen the station platforms had to be added to the cost of this already high-priced blooper, so the new trains could fit through.

So just how did this extravagant error occur? The problem was one of simple miscommunication – the national rail operator RFF had given the wrong proportions to the regional train company, and because the two weren’t working in tandem, no one realised the mistake until it was too late. Ministers blamed France’s “absurd rail system” but whatever the reason for the original blunder, with a blooper this pricey, we hope they have a process in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

2. A multi-million-pound bill for fixing the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper

Walkie talkie skyscrapper

Since its initial construction the Walkie Talkie building in Fenchurch Street, London has been no stranger to controversy, with many people complaining that the unusually heavy top “stuck out like a sore thumb” and didn’t fit in with the rest of the London landscape.
In 2015, the Walkie Talkie even won the Carbuncle Cup, an award given to the worst building in London, but though the landmark only received complaints about its design at first – there were more serious problems to come.

It was discovered that the sun reflected off of the glass facade of the building sometimes known as the Sky Garden, which was melting cars and blistering paint on storefronts. The temperature was purported to be so high, you could cook an egg on the pavement below!

What’s more, the building’s shape caused a wind tunnel effect at the bottom, with gusts so strong they caused people and shopping trolleys to be blown over. To fix the errors, developers had to foot a multi-million pound bill, but while that sounds high, we’re sure they’ll be getting at least some of their money back – as the building’s market rental rate is an eye-watering £63 a square foot!

3. A typo on plane tickets

a typo on a plane ticket

$7.2 million

Next time you feel embarrassed about making a typo, be grateful that at least it didn’t cost you over $7 million dollars in cash, like the now defunct airline Alitalia. In 2006, Italy’s then largest airline advertised long haul flights in business class from Toronto to Cyprus at a too good to be true cost of just $39!

As you might expect, travellers rushed to book their seats on the ultra-cheap flights but it turned out someone at the company had made a listing error – as the journey was supposed to cost $3900. The company immediately tried to refund the cost of the cheap tickets, but were faced by a slew of complaints, so, to try and save face, they had to let customers fly who’d already booked.

As a result of their PR efforts, they wound up out of pocket to the tune of $7.2 million dollars, and while we don’t think this doozy necessarily contributed to the company’s 2021 closure, it’s still a lot of money to lose because of a couple of missed off zeros.

4. A code error destroyed a NASA rocket

NASA rocket

$80 million

Typos have caused cringeworthy expensive mistakes on more than one occasion – and one of the most memorable was back in 1962, with the launch of the Mariner 1, a NASA rocket. After years of investment – and jousting with the USSR over who could claim the title of victor of the then Space Race, NASA hoped the rocket launch would reposition the USA as the world leaders in space.

NASA bosses decided that Mariner 1 would carry out a flyby survey of Venus that would set an amazing new landmark for space travel – and there had been years of research, calculations, and checks performed to prepare for the flight. However, no one was quite prepared for what happened next – 5 minutes after its launch Mariner 1 exploded, and $80 million of the US Government’s money promptly went up in smoke!

When NASA chiefs investigated what had caused the problem, we bet they wanted to kick themselves – the omission of a single hyphen embedded deep in Mariner 1’s code, which was transcribed by hand, was found to be the reason the rocket didn’t complete its course.

5. Publishers turned down Harry Potter

Publishers turned down Harry Potter

$1.15 billion (in novel sales)

There has to be at least 12 publishers out there that are kicking themselves over the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise, as back when author JK. Rowling was still searching for a publisher for the series, she didn’t get lucky until her 13th try!

The story of the boy who went to wizarding school, now loved by millions, has made J.K $1.15 billion in novel sales, and over $700 million in film rights – but it all started back in 1990 with a single idea the author had on a train. According to Rowling’s agent at the time though, the first book in the series – Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – was turned down by nearly every major publishing house in the UK over a period of 12 months.

Reasons given ranged from the story’s length to the location the book was set in, as it was thought a children’s boarding school might be a setting that was too exclusive to most readers. J.K. finally struck lucky, with Bloomsbury agreeing to take the work on, and the rest, as they say is history. Since the Philosopher’s Stone was released, the Potter franchise has raked in extraordinary sums for Rowling’s publishers Bloomsbury- and we bet they are extremely glad the book got turned down so many times.

6. Yahoo sold Alibaba

Yahoo sold Ali baba

$80 billion (pre-tax)

Yahoo  sold half its stake in Chinese mega-ecommerce site Alibaba back in 2012, but investors at the company probably regretted this decision when Alibaba went public on the stock exchange with a record breaking IPO, two years later. The 2012 deal that valued Yahoo’s shares at just $13, might have seemed great at the time, but just 24 months later Alibaba shares were valued at $68 each – while now they’re worth over $181.

Yahoo had initially invested $1 billion into Alibaba in 2005 and had received a 30% stake in the company, but external pressure from investors to liquidate the company’s Asian assets forced then CEO Scott Thompson to sell. Thompson may have only been Yahoo’s CEO for 180 days, but the ramifications of his dubious 2012 decision rippled on for much longer, culminating with Yahoo deciding in 2019 to sell the rest of their stake in the Chinese firm.

This time around, Yahoo execs didn’t have to hide behind their hands, as they made a respectable net return of $40 billion for their investors, though if the company had hung on to its original 30% stake, the return would have been $80 billion!

7. Half a Billion in Bitcoin, Lost in the Dump

Half a Billion in Bitcoin, Lost in the Dump

$280 million

If you’ve ever tossed anything away, then regretted it, you can probably empathise with James Howell, though we’re wagering you didn’t lose $280 million, like the Wales native did when he threw out his old hard drive.

After purchasing 7,500 bitcoins in 2009 for next to nothing compared to their subsequent price, Howell dismantled his computer and left the hard drive in a drawer when he spilled a drink on his machine. Three years later, when he was packing up to move house, he discovered the drive – and forgetting the bitcoins were on it, promptly chucked it away in the bin.

When he realised that the price of bitcoins was shooting through the stratosphere and were now valued at an exorbitant $1000 for a single bitcoin, Howell remembered the coins. Checking his backup files proved fruitless, so he approached the owner of the landfill site that his hard drive would have been transported to, hoping to discover it there. We’re sorry to report that Howell was disappointed once again though, as the manager at the site told him that because the drive could be buried 5ft deep – it would be nearly impossible to find.

8. Blockbuster could have bought Netflix

Blockbuster could have bought Netflix

$168.97 billion (Netflix worth 2022)

Fallen video giant Blockbuster used to reign supreme in the 80’s and 90’s but though the chain tried to stay relevant once the 00’s hit, they eventually wound up shutting their doors. The movie maestro had a 13 year rule as the kingpin of the video industry – until Netflix launched in 1998. The new kid on the block initially had an aim to improve the home movie rental market with one simple idea – to offer films up to customers by post.

After a few years struggling to boost its subscriber rate, by offering free trials and deep discounts to entice potential customers, Netflix managed to get enough subscribers so that they were in a position to sell the company, so they made an offer to their rivals – Blockbuster. As at the time, Netflix was still losing more money than it was making, the deal didn’t look too attractive to the still dominant video franchise – so Blockbuster declined the chance to buy the company at the now-bargain price of $50 million.

Since Netflix was last valued at around $168.97 billion, we think former executives at Blockbuster might have come to regret their decision, as the streaming service has now become the main way people consume movies at home. We’re happy to hear there is still one last Blockbuster standing though, in Bend, Oregon, US, and it’s even featuring in a documentary about the video giant’s defiant last stand – which will appear on Netflix, of course!

9. The fallen Wall Street trader

The fallen Wall Street trader

$6.2 billion

If you’ve ever gambled on a risky investment portfolio which has blown up in your face, you’ll know how one minute the markets can look as if they are going in your favour, only to sweep the rug out from under you at the last moment. But while some people might dabble with a few $1000 here and there, they don’t usually find themselves out of pocket by $6.2 billion, which is what happened to former trader Bruno Iskil, aka the “London Whale”.

Nicknamed “Voldemort” because of his aggressive enthusiasm for big, risky trades, Iskil was ironically part of a team tasked with protecting JP Morgan from risk – but it all went wrong in 2012 when a renegade bet he made imploded. Whenever JP Morgan made a big investment bet, Iskil’s job was to insure it in case it went wrong – a practice commonly known as hedging. But Iskil decided to go rogue, and instead of following the usual hedging process, he decided to place bets on complex investment securities – hoping to make the bank enormous profits.

Unfortunately, the bold bet didn’t go his -or JP Morgan’s way – and the bank wound up losing $6.2 billion. Iskil obviously ignored the most basic rule of gambling – discipline – but to be fair, apparently he wasn’t totally to blame, as his superiors have admitted that others were involved too and that managers should have stopped the trades from happening.

10. New Coke flavour

New coke flavour

$34 Million

When big-budget products flop, they often flop big time, and this has never been truer than for Coca Cola when they tried to reinvent the wheel. In 1985, the brand decided to get the jump on their rivals Pepsi, with the release of New Coke, a drink that had been created to taste sweeter than the original – much like Pepsi does.

The launch was not a success, as fans of Coke were so unhappy, they demanded Coke bring back their original formula. Just 79 days after the launch of New Coke, and after $34 million of losses, executives from Coca Cola announced a return to the old formula, which would be called Coca Cola Classic until 2009. New Coke must have had some fans though, as it was manufactured and sold under the name Coke until 1992, when it was rebranded to Coke II, before being discontinued in 2002.

The story is perhaps a cautionary tale that proves the old adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” although New Coke did make a limited 500,000 can run comeback in 2019, and even made an appearance in the Netflix hit show, Stranger Things. This time around, the drink received a friendlier reception, with customers rushing to order cans online. Perhaps that’s not too surprising though, since today Coca Cola’s biggest market share comes from the company’s non-classic products, like Cherry or Diet Coke.

11. A winning lottery ticket tossed in the bin

A winning lottery ticket tossed in the bin

$58 Million

Next time you check your lottery numbers you might want to think twice before you discard what appears to be a losing ticket, or you could find yourself in a similar situation to the lottery winner who very nearly missed out.

When Fred Higgins ran his ticket through the checking machine at his local newsagents and the machine didn’t indicate he’d won, the shopkeeper decided it was a loser and tore it in half. A second later, the machine emitted a winning beep, along with a ticket asking Higgins to call Camelot.

After checking the numbers at home with his wife Lesley, Higgins thought he’d won £5.8 million, only to be shocked when he discovered he’d actually netted the cool sum of £58 million! The story didn’t end there though, as Camelot executives still had to decide whether they could honour torn up tickets – so Higgins and his wife had to wait for an agonising fortnight until they were told they could claim their prize!

12. The third founder of Apple sold his share early on

The third founder of Apple sold his share early on

$300 billion

Imagine finding out that you’d sold shares in one of the most successful companies ever – after they made their fortune and you might be able to spare some sympathy for Ronald Wayne, the man who lost out big on Apple. After founding the Apple Computer Company in 1976 with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack, who he’d met at Atari, Wayne owned a 10% stake in what was to become one of the biggest brands in the world.

But once he’d spent a mere 12 days as a founder, he decided to pull out, and sold his entire take to Wozniack for a paltry $800! The problem was, Apple was a young company – both Jobs and Wozniack were in their early 20’s and inexperienced, whereas Wayne had a house with a mortgage, along with other assets.

To prevent Apple’s debts falling on his shoulders he made the decision to back away from the brand – but his choice proved to be an unfortunate one, as today his stake would be worth $300 billion. We bet Wayne wishes he had a crystal ball back then, as if he’d stayed on as a stakeholder, he’d never have had to worry about his financial security ever again – in fact his $300 billion worth would have made him one of the richest men in the world!

13. A new-build in Shanghai collapsed

A new-build in Shanghai collapsed

$30 million

When you’re overseeing large construction projects, it’s prudent to follow some ground rules, such as not undergoing underground excavation without properly supporting the building you’re working on. When the unoccupied 13 story Lotus Riverside building collapsed in China’s Minhang district in 2009, homeowners who’d invested in the complex were stunned, not least because apartments had been sold at a pricey $2,100 per square metre.

At first nobody knew what caused the 629-strong apartment structure to collapse, but an investigation soon revealed that improper construction methods were to blame and the real estate company’s assets were frozen. The collapse, which caused 130 residents to be evacuated from their homes, came after several days of heavy rain, which investigators said caused a shift in the soil structure. When the builders went to dig an underground car park, they piled mud up to 10 metres high on the other side, which created so much pressure the foundations of the complex were weakened.

Another huge contributing factor was that the construction team had not created any scaffolding to support the car park walls that they’d been digging – and we have to say that sounds like a pretty major step to miss out on!

Also Read: 15 Most Dangerous Bridges in the World

14. Superman’s moustache

Superman’s moustache

$25million (on reshoots)

When Avengers director Joss Wheedon created his 2017 theatrical cut of Justice League, he probably wasn’t banking on getting so many complaints from furious fans about Superman’s moustache. The problem was, Wheedon had had to film The Tudor’s star Henry Cavill while he was under contract from Paramount, and part of the deal was a clause that prevented Cavil shaving off his facial hair. Superman notoriously doesn’t have a moustache, so after spending $25 million on reshoots, there was no choice but to remove Cavill’s by digital means.

Unfortunately CGI removal didn’t go too well and resulted in an overly fake effect, which cinema goers weren’t happy about. Luckily, Cavil had filmed scenes for Justice League before he’d been under contract to Paramount, minus his moustache – and when original director Zak Synder was handed back the reins to the film, he used this and discarded Wheedon’s footage.

When Synder’s director’s cut was released in 2021, the result was a flawless upper lip for Superman – and a legion of once-again happy fans. We’re guessing Wheedon found out the hard way that if you mess with a superhero’s moustache, it may well become your very own Kryptonite!

15. The collapse of the Seongsu Bridge

The collapse of the Seongsu Bridge

$2 million to rebuild (plus compensation)

When Seongsu Bridge collapsed in 1994 in Seoul, the accident shook many Koreans to the core, as the bridge was a symbol of the new urban society that had been created in the city since 1979.

The incident occurred at 7:38 AM in the morning, on October 21st, when the fifth and sixth leg of the bridge collapsed and slid into the Han River. 32 people became casualties of the accident, while at least 17 others were injured, but worse was to come – an investigation into the construction of the Seongsu Bridge would discover that the collapse could have been preventable.

The beams, corner work, and welding were all found to have been severely neglected, and over the years there had been a huge increase in traffic – that the bridge wasn’t designed to support. The night before the accident, some people had even reported that the road on the bridge had cracks – but sadly officials failed to respond. Had they done so, the outcome may have been very different, but as it turns out, they had to pay out compensation to the injured parties to the tune of $185,000.

Since a new bridge has now been constructed on the site at a cost of $2 million, we do hope lessons have now been learned, so a similar event like this doesn’t occur once more.

Also Read: 20 Most Dangerous Airports In The World