Archive for June, 2016

Saying It’s a Recall Doesn’t Make It So

With the CPSC’s blessing, a large furniture company recently sent out wall anchors for its children’s dressers to address a tipping hazard and the accompanying CPSC press release did not refer to the activity as a recall. Subsequently a child was killed when one of the dressers fell. Chaffing under criticism from its decision to allow the company to do a “non-recall recall”, the powers-that-be at the CPSC have now apparently decided that every corrective action or other announcement about a product must be labeled a “recall.”  Commissioner Buerkle has pointed out why this rigid adherence to labels is bad policy.  And this past week we have seen why her concerns are well-founded.

The issue involves the agency’s investigation of flooring made in China and sold by Lumber Liquidators, which allegedly emitted dangerous levels of formaldehyde. After the issue was described in a 60 Minutes segment in March, 2015, the company responded by agreeing not to sell the Chinese flooring and to test the flooring of those consumers who so requested. After over a year of extensive study, testing and investigation by several different agencies, no formaldehyde emissions above government guidelines were found.

Rather than announce this good news and put consumers’ minds at ease, last week the CPSC instead chose to cast the announcement in terms of a “recall.”  The “recall” that the agency announced is a first ever “recall to test”, with the company agreeing to continue what it has been doing from the beginning–that is, test for formaldehyde emissions the flooring of consumers who request that.  No promises of a refund, a repair or return of the flooring are made (although the release does hint that a consumer maybe, possibly could get some replacement flooring under undescribed circumstances at the company’s discretion). Buried in the press release is the admonition that consumers are not to pull up flooring they may be concerned about because that action could be dangerous.

I saw many press stories reporting that the investigation did not find a problem with the company’s product.  I did not see stories that discussed the fact that the company was doing a “recall” (although perhaps I may have missed some). This is a good thing since, by trying to unnaturally shoehorn the announcement of the investigation results into the concept of a recall, the release is both confusing and misleading to consumers.   And it belies the agency’s oft-stated notion that the press will ignore releases that do not include “recall” in the headline. It is an example of what happens when, like a myrmidon, the agency insists on rigid adherence to rules without concern as to appropriateness under the circumstances.  As Commissioner Buerkle notes, the CPSC should never say never.

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Let’s Play Penalty Roulette

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Playing games at the CPSC

Commissioner Mohorovic has just issued a thoughtful statement discussing the black hole that the CPSC calls its civil penalty policy.  This statement follows another he filed this week discussing the $4.5 million penalty lodged against Sunbeam for a single-brew coffee maker that squirted out hot water when not used properly.

The Commissioner’s most recent statement precedes next week’s agency hearing on priorities for the upcoming year.  He outlines a number of ways to address the process for assessing penalties—a process that, at best, can be called veiled and perplexing and, at worst, seems like penalty roulette.  Those concerned about public policy and consumer protection should carefully review his suggestions for putting more discipline into an arbitrary process.

The CPSC Chairman has publicly stated his desire to see penalties increased.  While disagreeing with that view, I do believe that it could be achieved more effectively if the agency were up-front about how they calculate penalties.  It is not sufficient to say that this calculation is determined by applying the various factors set out in the regulation dealing with civil penalties.  The settlement agreements over the past several years have been decidedly uninformative about how various factors were applied.  As one who was directly involved in crafting that regulation, and as I have written before, I believe that the current practice is at odds with the underlying intent of the regulation—that is, to add more transparency to the process.

Commissioner Mohorovic is to be applauded for his persistence in highlighting the problem.  Not only has he accurately described the problem, he has come up with creative suggestions for solving it.  While Commissioner Buerkle has repeatedly expressed her dismay for the manner in which penalties are assessed, it will be interesting to see if the other commissioners pay any attention.

Last week it was $3.75 million for glass tumblers that can break. This week it is $4.5 million for coffee makers that can spill out hot water if not used according to instructions.  Can’t wait to see what next week brings—but, for sure, it will be a crap shoot.

Navigating An Unmarked Channel

 

Last week, Commissioners Buerkle and Mohorovic each issued a statement on a civil penalty settlement involving glass tumblers manufactured by Teavana.  Each is a thoughtful statement and both should be read by anyone interested in how the agency does its work.  They can be found here and here.  Both Commissioners address, in somewhat different ways, the subjective nature of the Consumer Product Safety Act’s reporting requirements and the opaqueness of the agency’s process for determining penalty amounts for violations of provisions of the Act that require product sellers to report potential safety issues to the agency.  Both are concerned about the secrecy of the criteria, if any, applied in assessing penalties by an agency that used to pride itself on its openness and transparency.

Commissioner Buerkle points out that–given the subjective nature of the statute– the regulations defining, first, what factors will affect a penalty amount and, second, how those factors will be applied, become critically important.  As one who was directly involved in developing that regulation, I agree that it is probably too general in nature, given that the agency has done little to flesh out its applicability in real cases.  Instead the agency has just nodded its head in the regulation’s direction to justify what appear to be arbitrary penalty amounts. The publicly-stated desire of Commission leadership for higher penalties leaves one thinking that the penalty policy of this commission is “get as much as you can” and not that “the punishment should fit the crime.” Consequently, one can only conclude that the penalty factors in the regulation are window dressing to justify whatever the enforcement staff demands.

Commissioner Mohorovic stated that the agency is falling down in its consumer protection duties by not putting out clear buoys to mark the legal channel.  As I have written before, the simplistic agency mantra—“when in doubt, report”—does not work so easily with today’s commission, which is more intent on punishment than on true safety.  Commissioner Mohorovic makes a persuasive case that the company did not have any obligation to report in the first place.  The products in question are glass tumblers and there is always a risk that glass will break, especially when holding hot liquids.  Apparently there were only minor injuries. There is no reason to believe the glass was inordinately thin or fragile.  Based on all this, Commissioner Mohorovic concludes that the company had no obligation to report, but agency enforcement staff reached a decidedly different conclusion.  The result was a $3.75 million penalty against the company, and we are left with no understanding as to how the agency got to that figure.

The agency has announced that it will hold a hearing this summer to consider its priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.  Here is a suggestion:  given the growing concern over the secrecy surrounding how penalties in ever-increasing amounts are assessed, a review of the agency’s penalty factors regulation is warranted.  The clarity the agency was seeking in 2010 when this regulation was issued has not happened; instead the process has become much less clear.  Perhaps it is time to consider a matrix approach to civil penalties—that is, putting a value on, and applying that value to different types of violations.  The practices of other agencies may also provide some learning here.  There are probably many ways to make the situation better and the agency should spend some time trying to figure this out.


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