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CPSC Slow on Product Recalls, Public Citizen Says

Feb 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) often waits more than seven months before warning the public of a dangerous product, despite a law that says companies must inform the CPSC of product safety issues immediately upon learning of them.  These conclusions were reached by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which conducted a study of CPSC settlements published in the Federal Register.

The study, “Hazardous Waits: CPSC Lets Crucial Time Pass Before Warning Public About Dangerous Products,” covers 46 cases since 2002 in which the CPSC fined manufacturers for failing to adhere to the law requiring prompt reporting. In the cases Public Citizen reviewed, companies fined for tardy reporting took an average of 993 days – 2.7 years – between learning of a safety defect in their products and notifying the CPSC.

It is perhaps not surprising that the manufacturers of dangerous and defective products would drag their feet when it comes to reporting safety problems.  But consumers expect more from the CPSC, the agency charged with keeping dangerous products off the market.  Unfortunately, the CPSC’s track record is not much better.

According to Public Citizen, the CPSC took an average of 209 additional days to disclose information on product dangers to the public – even though each case concerned a product defect so dangerous that the item was recalled. Public Citizen says that the defective products that remained on the market months after the CPSC learned of them included coffee makers and vacuum cleaners prone to catching fire, treadmills that spontaneously accelerated to an Olympic miler’s pace, all-terrain vehicles with throttles that became stuck in the “go” position, bicycles with forks that could break under normal use, and infant swings that could cause strangulation and were implicated in the deaths of six infants.

One major cause of such delays is the manufacturers’ ability to sue the CPSC to block public disclosure of information about hazards. The mere threat of lawsuits deters the agency from acting.

Details of the settlement agreements reviewed by Public Citizen also reveal that manufacturers have taken a cavalier attitude toward the disclosure law. In addition to failing to notify the CPSC of safety defects – often after receiving hundreds of notices from their customers – many manufacturers withheld key details from the agency when they finally did file. These details included customer complaints about products, efforts to redesign products to resolve design flaws and information about the death of a consumer.

Public Citizen says its findings illustrate the need for Congress to give the CPSC more authority and resources. In crafting legislation to reauthorize the CPSC, which is currently under negotiation in Congress, the group said lawmakers should provide the CPSC with the freedom to inform the public about risks promptly, and the agency should be free from undue interference from manufacturers.  The CPSC also needs the authority to levy more substantial fines and assess criminal penalties, and it needs more budget and staff.  Finally, Public Citizen says Congress should allow state attorneys general to enforce the law and give them authority to seek all of the remedies available to the CPSC.


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