Such a Tiny Product; Such a Large Issue

On a recent overseas trip, in one of the trendiest shops in one of the trendiest Western European capitals, I saw a display of tiny spherical rare earth magnets (SREM’s) with signs extolling the coolness of the product.  I almost bought up the entire display but thought about the possibility, when I got back to the States, of CPSC investigators confiscating the whole batch and hauling me off as an importer of deadly banned products.  If only I were kidding.

Remember that, here in the U.S., SREM’s were once a very popular product, intended as an adult desk toy or for making remarkable sculptures and art works.  However, if children swallowed the tiny magnets, they could cause serious internal injury.  Therefore, the CPSC set out to force the product off the market–through a series of recalls aimed at individual importers together with strong pressure on retailers not to sell the product. The agency also issued a rule banning the sale of tiny powerful magnets when used as a manipulative.  Only one company—little Zen Magnets in Boulder, CO, whose CEO is not yet 30 years old—refused to knuckle under and decided to fight the government.

This past weekend, in a battle of David v. Goliath proportions, Zen finally got a win.  Here’s what happened.  When Zen refused to voluntarily recall the SREM’s he was importing and selling, the CPSC filed a lawsuit to force a mandatory recall.  A trial was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to determine if the magnets, when sold, were defective and constituted a substantial product hazard and therefore must be recalled. After a long trial and much deliberation, the ALJ found what most of us, except the CPSC, already knew:  that ingesting SREM’s can create a risk of injury but that proper use of the magnets pose no threat and that, when sold with appropriate warnings and proper age recommendations, the magnets do not pose a substantial product hazard.  The ALJ rejected the agency’s argument that warnings cannot be effective because the spheres can become separated.  He also rejected the agency argument that the product was so inherently dangerous to children that proper use by adults must give way.  Significantly, this is the first judge to examine the underlying theory of the agency’s actions forcing recalls and he found the agency’s proof to be wanting.

Even though Zen won this battle, it has not won the war. The agency lawyers now have ten days to appeal the ALJ’s decision.  That appeal will be heard and decided by the five members of the CPSC—the same group who voted to sue Zen, who voted to issue the related rule banning the product, and several of whom have made public statements that suggest where they will come out on the appeal.  In other words, Zen doesn’t stand a chance before the Commission.  The Commission’s decision can then be appealed to the appropriate Court of Appeals.   If Zen has the resources and is scrappy enough to continue the fight, it will be a long one indeed.

Solving At Least One Magnet Issue

On a related matter, the Commission has stepped up to address a flaw in its rules governing trials before ALJ’s.  When the agency was trying to force the recall of SREM’s sold under the name “Buckyballs”, and when the company had the “hutzpah” to say “no” to the agency’s demand that it recall its magnet product, the agency voted to sue Buckyballs as well.  After the Commissioners voted to bring the action against the company, the agency staff took it upon itself to expand the complaint to sue the CEO of the company in his personal capacity.  While this case was ultimately settled, the settlement did not address whether the staff acted properly in expanding the complaint without an affirmative vote of the Commission.

The agency is currently updating its rules of practice for adjudicative proceedings and those proposed rules are now out for public comment.  Commissioner Mohorovic was able to get into the proposal – unanimously – an amendment that expressly requires the ALJ to refer to the Commission “any proposed amendment [that] would have the effect of adding or removing any person as a respondent to the complaint or adding or removing any count.” Just in case an ALJ tried to reason in such a way that an amendment that should come to the Commission didn’t actually add a party (by, say, reasoning that the CEO of a company is de facto on the complaint already, so it’s fine to add him by name) and thus could be done without Commission approval, the proposal also creates an interlocutory appeal right for any ruling on an amendment made without a Commission decision.

Admittedly, this language is overly broad since one would not want to capture situations where staff needs to add a DBA, for instance, nor should the agency give an interlocutory appeal for amendments that clearly are within staff’s administrative authority, but, for the handful of times in a decade that the agency actually litigates something, the burden of work from overbreadth seems to be insignificant compared to the risk to Commission authority from being too narrow. The staff’s action with respect to the Buckyballs situation demonstrates the need for this kind of correction.  Since the proposed amendments make a number of other changes to the adjudicative procedures, they should be carefully reviewed and comments provided the agency.

The proposed changes to the agency’s adjudicative proceedings are now out for public comment.  Those who practice before the agency and other interested parties should read them carefully and take the time to comment.  As we have seen from the Zen case, this stuff matters.

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