While kids suffered harms, consumer agency cozied up to corporations

cpsc-150x150One of the nation’s top consumer protection agencies cozied up to the businesses it was supposed to watch over, leaving children and other consumers vulnerable to significant harms.

That’s the disturbing conclusion of congressional staffers reporting to Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on a U.S. Senate committee with oversight responsibilities for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The Democratic staffers ripped the agency, headed by a Republican appointee who has since resigned, for its poor performance with high-profile cases involving Britax’s BOB jogging stroller, Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper, and the safety of residential elevators.

“Consumers and their families should have confidence in the products they buy,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Industry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission need to take action to ensure that consumers aren’t buying dangerous or defective products and that those who do receive a real remedy.”

As the Washington Post reported about the stroller case:

“[T]he CPSC and makers of BOB jogging strollers were criticized for their handling of accidents in which the front wheel of the three-wheeled stroller spontaneously detached. Nearly 100 children and adults were injured from 2012 to 2018, according to the agency. But the stroller was never recalled after the CPSC backed off from its threat to take serious action against the company. The Post later revealed the commission’s then-acting chairwoman, Republican Ann Marie Buerkle, had hidden the agency’s investigation into the stroller accidents from her Democratic counterparts. Buerkle then pushed the case toward a settlement, which safety advocates criticized as favoring the company.”

As for the sleeper incidents, the newspaper reported:

“[T]he Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper for babies … was recalled in April [after] a finding from Consumer Reports that more than 30 babies had died in the product in the past decade. Fisher-Price said it was offering a refund to consumers, but the report called the company’s claim ‘misleading and materially inaccurate.’ The company provided full refunds only for new Rock ‘n Plays. Older models were replaced by vouchers to buy other Fisher-Price products.”

With residential elevators, the Washington Post said:

“Cantwell’s staff also examined CPSC’s inaction to the risks of children being injured and killed in residential elevator accidents. A Post article revealed the industry has known for decades about the danger posed by a space between the elevator’s two sets of doors and done almost nothing, despite a simple remedy. The article described how a lack of urgency from regulators and resistance from companies combined to thwart the CPSC from warning the public or demanding a recall. The Cantwell staff report said the agency’s subsequent actions — which included an agency warning that received little attention and a letter to governors nationwide — resulted in consumers being ‘left holding the bag.’”

Consumer Reports, which says it “has long worked to help consumers make informed choices and influence the marketplace” praised the Senate staffers’ study and conclusions, which included a dive into confidential agency records and exchanges. The organization, through one of its leaders, said this:

“CPSC leaders must make full use of their committed, expert staff and every available legal tool to keep consumers safe. This includes warning the public about specific hazardous products, issuing fines when companies don’t follow the law, and demanding full refunds or easy repairs for consumers as a part of recalls — even when companies don’t want them to take these steps.”

The staff, Reuters reported, “urged the commission to be quicker to issue imminent health and safety warnings, to fine companies that fail to report hazards, and to use refunds or easy repairs to make consumers whole after they purchase a dangerous product.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on consumers by defective and dangerous products, especially those of the medical kind. It is always valuable for members of panels like the CPSC to weigh with care the interests of businesses and consumers, ensuring, too, that bureaucrats don’t act in excess.

But there’s a hot and special place below for public servants who kowtow to companies that injure or kill babies and children in the pursuit of big profits. If egregious products or behaviors are brought to light — whether by federal staff or consumer advocates — shame on appointees to a product safety commission for trying to cover up bad acts or items, or of bending over on behalf of businesses over harmed innocents.

Senate staffers assailed the CPSC, too, for putting up obstacles for harmed consumers to get some of their due for bad products, with the agency allowing a company to require claimants to navigate an online maze before reaching their needed information. There, they also did not receive refunds or compensation. Instead, they were offered what staffers decried as another option — vouchers or coupons for other products offered by the offending firm. This rewarded bad behavior, further enriching a company for putting out shoddy wares.

The Washington Post reported that Senate Democrats likely will go into 2020, a presidential election year, eager to exercise more oversight over the CPSC, which now lacks a full chair (a Democrat is serving as the interim) and is split 2-2 between the parties.

And, while it’s good news that the ineffectual commission is under scrutiny, the newspaper also isn’t giving consumers much of a glimmer of hope for improvement. That’s because the president, as he too often has done with dubious picks for important posts, “is considering nominating Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry executive who pushed to relax rules on toxic chemicals at the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the next leader of the CPSC.”

We’ve got to watch this all closely — and to remember what happened to the agency in recent years as we all go out and vote.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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