Archive for the 'Recalls' Category

Just in Time for Thanksgiving:  Britax Settlement Signals Common-Sense Thinking at CPSC

 

At this time of year, we celebrate blessings large and small. For product sellers, consumers, and others who are interested in both product safety and the administrative process, the new make-up of the CPSC is one of those blessings worth celebrating. The agency has reassessed its approach to its mission of protecting consumers. It is allocating its scare resources on addressing defective and non-compliant products that actually can hurt consumers rather than trying to push the legal envelop with expansive theories that enhance the agency’s power to dictate consumer choice.

Let me give you an example.  The CPSC has now announced that it is settling the administrative case that it brought against Britax Child Safety Inc. earlier this year. Among other products, Britax makes jogging strollers with a front wheel quick release function which is very popular with consumers.  The CPSC alleged that the strollers were defective because some consumers “may not read, may fail to follow or may misunderstand the instructions” on how to use the quick release mechanism and, as a result, the front wheel could detach during use.  Note that the agency did not allege that the instructions were inadequate or confusing but rather that some consumers did not properly follow them and, as a result, suffered injury when the wheel detached.  The CPSC was especially concerned that if the quick release was not properly engaged, the jogging stroller could still operate with no clue to the user of the problem until the wheel fell off.

This settlement is noteworthy for several reasons. First, the case presented a very expansive interpretation of what is “reasonably foreseeable consumer misuse.”  The concept is addressed in the CPSC’s own regulations in only a cursory manor.  The regulations note that inadequate instructions that lead to consumer misuse of a product, resulting in injury, can be a product defect.  However, that is not the situation in the Britax case, at least as it is described in the agency complaint.  The agency did not allege that the instructions were confusing or inadequate, only that some consumers might not follow them.

The role of consumer misuse and the foreseeability of such misuse is also a consideration when assessing whether a risk of injury renders a product defective.  In other words, in assessing the utility of the product verses injury risks that may be presented, anticipating how consumers could misuse a product should be part of the analysis. However, the regulations cannot be read to require that every misuse must be anticipated as part of the product design process.  Nor can they be read to mean that the fact that consumers may ignore clear instructions renders a product defective.

It is significant that the stroller met CPSC safety standards applicable to this product, including the quick release mechanism. Given this and the scant support in the regulations, the case, as brought, suggests that the Commissioners wished to push the definition of consumer misuse to the point that product makers must be the guarantors of the safety of the products they sell regardless of circumstances.  The circumstances of this case, as brought, suggest that if there is the potential for a consumer to assemble a product improperly, even with adequate instructions and warnings, then that product can be considered defective.  Such a result would have a profound impact on today’s marketplace. Given all this, it is wise that the Commission, with new Commissioners taking another look, now has decided to settle the case.

In addition, the settlement is noteworthy for other reasons. The settlement does not acknowledge that a defect exists or that a recall is being done.  Instead it states that the company, among other things, will undertake an information campaign to try to educate customers on the proper use of the quick release function including a video with incentives being offered to promote viewing.  This is a departure from past commission practice insisting on calling every negotiated remedy a recall even if it was not. (See the Lumber Liquidators “Recall to Test” for one example.)

Because no recall is taking place, the product can continue to be sold on the secondary market.  Had the company agreed to call this a recall, the Consumer Product Safety Act would penalize a seller of a product recalled by the manufacturer.  Certainly, this is good news for consumers who wish to buy this product used and who are able to follow instructions on the proper use of the quick release feature.

More broadly, this settlement offers an opportunity for the CPSC, safety professionals and others with a stake in advancing product safety to begin a more thoughtful and productive conversation about reasonably foreseeable consumer misuse of products.  The Britax case, as brought, pushed the definition of consumer misuse to a point of meaninglessness—it would mean whatever a majority of commissioners decided on any given day.  Putting some better-understood bounds around the term would provide helpful clarity. And that would turn a turkey of a decision to sue into something we could all be thankful for.

 

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Tell CPSC What You Think

One of the very positive hallmarks of the new leadership at the CPSC is a desire to hear from all interested stakeholders on how to more effectively push forward the agency’s safety mission. The agency has offered several opportunities for input and for those of us who share that goal, these opportunities should not be ignored.

First, the agency will be conducting a workshop on ways to improve the recall process, including the effectiveness of recalls.  Recall effectiveness is a perennial topic of conversation at the agency so it is gratifying that the agency is again looking at this topic, but hopefully from a new perspective.  Both as a Commissioner and now, in private law practice, I often hear complaints about the opaqueness of the process. Participation in the workshop offers an opportunity to give real suggestions on how to make the recall process work better.  The workshop will be held on July 26, 2017 at the agency headquarters in Bethesda.  Those interested in participating must sign up with the agency no later than July 3.  Here is more information about the workshop.

Second, the agency is requesting comments on ways to reduce the regulatory burden imposed by agency rules in ways that do not diminish safety.  This effort is especially welcome since many of the regulations issued by the agency over the past eight years did not consider ways to accomplish safety goals in less burdensome ways.  When Congress told the agency to try to find ways to reduce the burden of testing, the agency went through a fantasy effort to comply and, not surprisingly, came up with very little.  Indeed, about the best it could do was exempt from testing toys made entirely from untreated wood from the trunks of trees (but not the branches—who knows what could be in branches!).  (See here.)

Reducing unnecessary regulatory burden is important since this engenders respect and support for the agency. Rules that are outdated, overly complex, or impose requirements without regard to real and measurable safety results should be identified and either changed or repealed.  The agency’s effort to collect information on burdens imposed by its regulations is a welcome first step in this process.

 

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.

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.

Killer Coffee Mugs?! Really?!

Did anyone else notice CPSC’s recall last week of ceramic mugs?  The agency is concerned about 4400 mugs with hairline cracks.  The hazard is not that they break and cut the user, or that there may be sanitary issues with germs being trapped in those cracks, but that hot liquids might seep through the cracks and cause a burn—not that any burns have been cracked holiday cupreported.

I am a potter.  I have a pottery studio and on most weekends you can find me at my pottery wheel.  But I am not a very good potter and I have made my share of ceramic mugs with hairline cracks.  The problem comes about when a pot that is not fully dried is put into the kiln or when the kiln temperature is either too low or too high for the type of clay and glaze being used.  And although, in those circumstances, it is possible to get small cracks in the surface, it is not possible for liquid to quickly flow out through those cracks. As the agency says in its press release, liquids can seep through, and by the time they get to the outer wall, it is just not possible for those liquids to be so hot as to cause a burn.  An annoying moisture ring on your table, yes, but a burn, no.

This is another example of the agency conflating product quality issues with product safety issues.  In this case, presumably the manufacturer reported the issue in an abundance of caution, probably under the agency’s Fast Track program. It used to be that not every report resulted in a recall and that the agency compliance staff was encouraged to exercise judgment and common sense in determining whether a recall was warranted.  But the position of Director of Compliance has gone unfilled for over three years so it is not surprising that leadership direction to the staff is lacking and staff may not feel empowered to make the sensible judgment calls without risking criticism.

As I have written before, when the agency turns a quality issue into a safety issue, it is wandering way outside its mandate.  Unfortunately, the agency has generated such confusion—and fear–in the regulated community with its enforcement policies that companies feel compelled to report things like mugs with hairline cracks.  That the agency compounds the problem by agreeing to a recall in such a case means that the definition of a safety hazard is totally unpredictable.  Apparently a hazard is whatever the agency says it is. Objective indicators, such as the existence of injuries, have no place in that calculation, replaced instead by speculative conjecture.

It is not clear how consumer safety is furthered by this result.  Perhaps it is time to change the agency’s name from the Product Safety Commission to the Product Quality Assurance Commission. It seems as if that is what the agency is trying to do.

If the Public Doesn’t Buy it, Keep Selling it Anyway

Today, the CPSC is reannouncing a recall because the original announcement garnered such a low response rate—under one percent.  Today’s action and the original recall – done in May, 2014—illustrate how the agency overuses and misuses the recall system.

Here’s the background.  In May, 2014, the agency announced a recall of portable adult bed handles used to assist getting in and out of bed.  According to the agency release, the bed handles could shift and create a gap with the mattress; three individuals in adult care facilities became entrapped and died in the gap between the mattress and the handle.  The agency is concerned about 113,000 bed handles manufactured between 1994 and 2007.  The remedy that the agency proposed is for those who have the bed handles to contact the company to get a set of straps (and 3 pages of instructions) to use to hold the handles in place.  And, yes, did I mention that they also get a sticker to put on the handle to remind them to use the straps?

The agency has taken a business-as-usual, cookie-cutter approach to a problem that needs more creative thinking to solve.  The home health care and adult care industries have traditionally not been ones that have had to deal with the CPSC. And while greater availability of products in the general marketplace makes for greater responsibility on the part of providers, safety regulators also have a role to play in reaching out to those it newly seeks to regulate.  Efforts to craft a safety standard for this product have now been over two years in the making, so writing a standard apparently is not necessarily an easy undertaking.  In the meantime efforts to encourage an industry safety campaign to educate caregivers—perhaps even giving out safety straps where needed–could go a long way to addressing the risks the agency has identified. But up to now the agency has been absent on that front. [Commission Adler and I will be on a program before the home health care industry next month addressing some of these issues.]  My point is that such an educational program would reach more caregivers in a more effective way than the 2014 press release and today’s reannouncement.  Yet, the CPSC is wedded to the notion that only a recall and press release will suffice, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

The recall is trying to reach products that are quite old.  The newest bed handles subject to the recall have been in the market for at least eight years and who knows how many are still being used.  The remedy that is proposed also appears to be somewhat hard to accomplish and that may also explain why so few people have responded. The statute states that a recall remedy shall be a “repair”, a “replacement”, or a “refund”; it does not say a “re-jiggering.”  Yet, that is what this feels like.

The CPSC has overused the recall device to the point that even when the agency yells, often people don’t listen.  It has underused its ability to take on safety campaigns, either solely or in cooperation with other allies who could help it leverage its resources and broaden its reach.  That is too bad.

Shihan vs Goliath, Addendum

It is nice to know that folks out there read what I write.  When I started this blog I really wanted to have a conversation with people who are impacted by the actions of the CPSC, both positively and otherwise.  In response to my last blog post, I got a response from Shihan Qu, among others, and I thought I would share his comments.

Shihan takes issue with my notion that the magnets rule applies only to magnet sets that are intended to be used as adult desk toys and manipulatives.  He reminds me that the final rule blew a hole through this interpretation when the Commission added the phrase “commonly used” to the definition of magnet set.  The definition states “magnets sets are aggregations of separable magnetic objects that are marketed or commonly used as a manipulative or construction item.”  By expanding the definition this way, all powerful small magnet spheres may well end up within this definition since it is the end user, not the manufacturer, who determines whether the product is regulated or not.  One problem is that US based industrial magnet companies who never considered themselves within the definition may well be in for a nasty surprise if their products fall into the hands of the wrong user.

In response to my observation that magnets are easily available for sale online, Shihan responds, “Indeed you can still purchase magnet spheres easily by searching “neocube” or “buckyball” online. The rest of the companies are based in China, and are not easily targeted by the CPSC like we are. As long as there is demand, there will continue to be suppliers who will provide them. What can the CPSC do about them, if anything?”

Finally, I again emphasize that, in its latest action, the CPSC has targeted Mr. Qu personally, as it did when it went after Craig Zucker, in his individual capacity, in the Buckyballs matter.  It seems that the agency is really prickly when it comes to young entrepreneurs who still think that they can challenge the government.  Oh, when will they grow up?!

However, for those who are not willing to accept the notion that the government is always right, this is a troubling development.  And for CPSC attorneys who represent small companies, best let your clients know that, apparently if you want to fight the CPSC, be prepared to put your entire bank account on the line.


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