Jury Awards $20 Million, CPSC Decides to Respond

Back in 2011, Toys ‘R’ Us was hit with a $20.6 million verdict by a Massachusetts jury in a products liability case arising out of the death of 29-year old Robin Aleo.  The woman was killed while sliding down a 6-foot inflatable pool slide manufactured in China by Manly Toys and sold in the U.S. by Toys ‘R’ Us.  As the woman neared the bottom of the slide, it partially collapsed, causing her to strike her head on a concrete pool deck.  After a nearly two week trial, the jury awarded Aleo’s estate $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages.  Toys ‘R’ Us appealed the jury award, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court heard oral arguments in the case last week.

Aside from the amount of the jury’s award, the more intriguing issue in this case is the role of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  At trial, the estate argued that the slide did not comply with federal safety standards for swimming pool slides, citing to standards set forth by the CPSC in 1976.  Toys ‘R’ Us contends that the 1976 regulations do not apply to inflatable slides, but only to rigid pool slides.  According to the toy retail chain, inflatable slides were not around in 1976 and, thus, were not contemplated by the standards.

Nonetheless, the slides apparently were imported and never certified that they met any standards.  Regardless of whether Toys ‘R’ Us should be held responsible for this regulation snafu, it’s the CPSC’s response that draws our ire.  The CPSC did not recall the slide until May 2012 – months after the verdict and years after the 2006 incident.  The CPSC was also aware of at least two other cases of serious injury arising out of use of the slide.  If the slide really is afoul of CPSC regulations and has allegedly caused several cases of serious injury and/or death, then why wait until a jury verdict to issue a recall?  It is not like the CPSC has a firm rule to exercise due diligence in these things.  Remember Bucky Balls?

We have been critical of the CPSC in the past over its draconian measures.  Regardless, if the CPSC knows it is going to issue a recall, it might as well go ahead and do it – especially if the only fact that changed between the 2006 accident and the 2012 recall is a Massachusetts jury deciding the issue is worth $20 million.

Nap Nanny Manufacturer Fights CPSC Action

Ever wonder what happens to the companies involved in all of those recalls ordered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)? Many manufacturers sit back and conform to the CPSC’s demands to correct any perceived safety issues. Others publicly voice their displeasure. (We previously reported on the Buckyballs recall and the humorous company retort).

Count Nap Nanny infant recliner manufacturer, Baby Matters, LLC, as a member of the latter.

Back in 2010, the CPSC and Baby Matters issued a joint recall of the Nap Nanny following the death of an infant who had fallen from the product. Apparently, the baby harness on the first generation model attached only to the product’s fabric cover and did not adequately secure the children.  Infants using an improved second generation harness (pictured above) allegedly still ran the risk of partially falling and hanging over the side of the Nap Nanny. Following the voluntary recall, at least five additional deaths and 70 injuries were reported to the CPSC. According to reports, the CPSC then attempted to work with Baby Matters to correct the safety issues. When those discussions failed, in December, the CPSC filed an administrative complaint seeking to require Baby Matters to notify the public of the issues and offer refunds to consumers. Thereafter, the CPSC announced that major retailers (Amazon, Buy Buy Baby, Toys R Us, and Diapers.com) had agreed to voluntarily recall the Nap Nanny because Baby Matters had refused to do so. Here’s where this tale becomes even more interesting.

According to a report from The Consumerist, Baby Matters is now seeking a dismissal of the CPSC’s complaint. Interestingly, the company takes issue with language in the CPSC’s press release announcing the participation of the retailers. Apparently, an original version of the release stated that “it is illegal to attempt to sell or resell this or any other recalled product.” The Consumer Product Safety Act only makes it illegal to sell products following a voluntary recall by the manufacturer. Baby Matters claims the CPSC waited until 6:30 p.m. to correct the statement. By this time, the release “had achieved maximum impact.” The company now seeks a retraction and clarification that retailers are allowed to continue selling the Nap Nanny during the pending CPSC suit.

We here at Abnormal Use know little about the validity of the CPSC’s safety concerns in this case. In fact, even though we are parents of infant children, we were not even aware such a product existed (although we admit it looks comfortable). We do, however, understand the CPSC’s desire for action after continued reports of deaths and injuries, but obviously, the government, when pursuing any sort of action, should ensure that its literature is, at the very least, accurate.  We’ll be keeping our eyes on this one.

CPSC Recalls Blinds with Strangle Hazards (With Illustrations)

Recently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled custom-made horizontal and vertical blinds manufactured by Michigan-based Blind Express.  According to the CPSC report, the vertical blinds contain adjustment cords that do not attach to the wall or floor.  Likewise, the horizontal counterparts do not possess inner cord stops to prevent the cords from being pulled from the blinds.  As a result, children can become entangled in the cord loops.

The recall was prompted by a report of a 2-year-old girl strangled in the cord of some vertical blinds.

We here at Abnormal Use have not always seen eye-to-eye with the CPSC.  The CPSC, for all the good it does, is sometimes overzealous with its recalls.  In this instance, however, we can agree that loose blind cords present good grounds for a recall – especially when young children are placed in harm’s way.

Nevertheless, while we may support the end result, let us be a little a critical of the CPSC’s methods.  Just check out these photos from the CPSC recall notice:

Wow. We can understand using “fire and brimstone” tactics to make a point, but hanging baby dolls may be a bit excessive.  The blinds pose a strangulation hazard.  We get that.  But please explain how babies get trapped in the cords and then somehow suspended in mid-air?  We are guessing these are not accurate depictions of the hazards.  Something about these photos screams more psychopath journal than instructional warning label.

Illustrative warnings can be helpful – and sometimes even necessary – to get the point across.  Sometimes, however, a simple diagram will suffice.

CPSC Cuts Machetes Over Laceration Hazard

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is at it again.  Now, the CPSC has recalled the Bear Grylls Parang Machetes manufactured by Gerber because, get this, the product allegedly is a laceration hazard.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A machete has been recalled for being a laceration hazard.  Sounds ridiculous, sure.  But before we criticize the agency for its over-zealousness, we must admit that the CPSC may – at least this time – have some ground for its decision.

According to the CPSC, the machete has a weakness near the point where the handle meets the blade.  When in use, the machete’s handle or blade can break, posing a laceration hazard.  There have been 24 reports (out of 119,000 units sold) of breakages and one report of a laceration injury.  There have been no reports of injuries necessitating stitches.

Even we here at Abnormal Use can appreciate the risk of a runaway machete blade.  But is there really enough evidence to issue a recall?  With only 24 reports of breakage out of thousands sold, it is difficult to determine whether the product truly is defective. There is no evidence as to how the machetes were being used when they broke, so it is premature to comment on the product’s defectiveness in either design or manufacture.  Nevertheless, we suppose when it comes to sharp objects, an abundance of caution is necessary.  After all, we would hate to see an episode of Man vs. Wild interrupted because Grylls was injured while using the machete to make a lean-to out of an alligator carcass.

On a positive note for Gerber, with only one minor reported injury, this recall may have come early enough to avoid any potential litigation.  In the event litigation comes to fruition, however, we imagine the defense will have no problem coming up with a theme.  And, of course, the puns will run rampant.

[Hat Tip:  Boston Personal Injury News]

CPSC aims to eradicate Buckyballs, outstretch its boundaries

The Consumer Product Safety Commission serves a necessary purpose.  According to its website, the CPSC is charged with the burdensome task of “protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction.” (emphasis added) An important job, sure.

In its recent suit against Buckyballs, however, it misses the mark and oversteps its boundaries.

Buckyballs, distributed by New York-based Maxfield & Oberton, are spherically shaped magnets which together can be manipulated to form an infinite number of objects.  Last week, the CPSC initiated an action against Maxfield & Oberton seeking a declaration that Buckyballs constitute a “substantial product hazard” and an injunction prohibiting their distribution.  According to the complaint, the product poses a risk of ingestion and, once swallowed, presents further complications due to its magnetic qualities.  Allegedly, numerous instances of ingestion by children under 14 have occurred.

The CPSC alleges that the Buckyballs’ warning labels are defective as they do not adequately communicate the hazards associated with the small, magnetic spheres.  From March 2009 through March 2010, the product contained a warning on its packaging which stated:

Warning: Not intended for children.  Swallowing of magnets may cause serious injury and require immediate medical care.  Ages 13+.

Well, the warning sure sounds appropriate.  The CPSC wasn’t satisfied, however, noting that such products should not be marketed to children under the age of 14.  In response , Maxfield & Oberton recalled Buckyballs in March 2010 and changed its warnings to reflect the same.

Nonetheless, the CPSC alleges that the warning is ineffective because parents do not appreciate the hazards associated with magnet ingestion and will continue to allow children to have access to the products, “mouth the items, swallow them, or, in the case of young adolescents and teens, mimic body piercings.”  Really?  Even if parents and children/young adolescents are ignorant to the dangers of magnet ingestion, do they really not appreciate the risks of swallowing small metallic objects?  If so, then conceivably any object capable of being swallowed is not suitable for commerce.

To make matters worse, the CPSC alleges that Buckyballs are defectively designed because they do not operate exclusively as intended.  Again, really?  Buckyballs are intended to be used by adults and “shaped, molded, and torn apart.”  Any unintended operations (i.e. swallowing) are not the result of a defective product, but, rather, poor parental supervision or bad choices.

The question is not whether the ingestion of a small, metallic ball creates a substantial risk of harm.  Of course it does.  Rather, the question is whether Maxfield & Oberton has placed an unreasonably dangerous product on the market.  If Buckyballs were prizes in Happy Meals, then this may be a case for CPSC intervention.  These products, however, have been featured in the likes of Maxim, Rolling Stone, and Esquire magazine – not exactly children’s material.

Even so, once purchased, consumers should bear some personal responsibility.  Product manufacturers are not the absolute insurers of public health.  According to a report by USA Today, a 12-year old girl was hospitalized for 6 days upon swallowing Buckyballs after placing them in her mouth to mimic a tongue piercing.  If you are old enough to appreciate the apparent attractiveness of a tongue piercing, so to should you be able to recognize the risk of swallowing metallic objects.

Buckyballs should be treated like any product capable of ingestion.  Parents can and should keep them out of the reach of young children, not use them as refrigerator magnets.  No warning from Maxfield & Oberton or the CPSC should be necessary.  And, certainly, there is no reason to pull them from the market and risk putting a company out of business (Buckyballs and its progeny are Maxfield & Oberton’s only product).

Through its distribution of Buckyballs, Maxfield & Oberton is not putting consumers in danger.  Consumers are putting themselves and their children in danger by poor supervision and a lack of common sense.  It is one thing for the CPSC to not want the product marketed to children.  It is another to call for its extinction.

CPSC: Exploding Toilets Not Just an Urban Legend

Independence Day may have passed, but for millions, the fireworks are still ongoing – in their bathrooms.  And, no, this is not a cheap excuse for potty humor.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a recall of the Sloan Flushmate III Pressure-Assist Flushing System after receiving over 300 reports of exploding toilets.  According to the CPSC, the flushing system installed in approximately 2.3 million toilets nationwide can burst under increased pressure, shattering the tank.  At least 14 people have reported impact and laceration injuries from pieces of exploding porcelain. Ouch.

The recall comes in light of several news reports over the past year of unexplained toilet explosions.  Last September, two federal employees were injured by shards of porcelain when two toilets exploded in the General Services Administration building in Washington D.C.  In March, students from the University of Chicago reported that toilets were exploding in their dormitory.  It is unknown whether these incidents are related to the Flushmate, but we imagine it may become the scapegoat for government bureaucracy and inhumane freshman living conditions.

While the CPSC did not comment on the relative severity of any such incidents, explosions are not something one typically expects from the inner sanctum of the bathroom abode.  Exploding toilets are supposed to be the product of urban legend and children of the ’90s toting M-80s (See, e.g. Problem Child).  At this time, no details are available as to the cause of the pressure build-up in the Flushmate, but we can not refrain from utilizing a few jokes to help tell the story.

If the reports of injuries are accurate, we here at Abnormal Use expect the Flushmate may be the future target of some product liability litigation.  While not enough facts are known to accurately comment of the validity of any manufacturing defect claims, it is difficult to foresee many inherent defects in the product’s design given the relatively few complaints compared to the millions of products sold over a decade.   And, as for failure to warn? We can only imagine the allegations of the well-drafted complaint:

Manufacturer failed to adequately warn that toilet may become explosive with use.

Obviously, if there are true injuries involved, this should be no laughing matter.  However, there is something about the combination of toilets and explosions that brings out the child in us all.  Now, with news of the recall and the likelihood of potential litigation, the exploding toilet is no longer the stuff of urban legends.

The Abnormal Use Guide to Pool Safety

With summer on the horizon, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a warning to users of portable pools.  According to the report, an average of 35 children under the age of 5 die annually in portable pools, accounting for 11 percent of all pool drownings.  Considering these statistics, the CPSC obviously has valid reasons for concern.  However, in our usual irreverent way, we here at Abnormal Use must question the sufficiency of the CPSC’s tips for the prevention of such accidents.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the CPSC’s tips.  Rather, the advice is more akin to a helpful reminder that breathing is essential to sustain life.  Take this tip for example:

Teach children to swim, float and other-life saving basics.  But do NOT consider young children “drown-proof” because they have had swimming lessons.

No doubt, the ability to swim is a great way to lessen one’s chances of drowning.  We understand that not all parents are ideal, but do people really consider children taking swim lessons as “drown-proof”?  After all, they are called swimming lessons – not Olympic training.  Maybe the better tip would be:

Even children capable of swimming are susceptible to drowning.  When children are playing in pools, always assume that accidents are possible.

Our personal favorite tip is one with a great deal of merit.  It is perfectly logical.  Yet, something about it seems a bit misplaced.

If you can’t fence the pool, use smaller, easier to store portable pools.  Then, empty the water ANY time you are not supervising the pool and turn it upside down or store it away.

Again, it’s good advice.  If a small pool is capable of being drained after each use, it makes sense to do so and take away the hazard.  But is this really the solution?  Reading between the lines, we know what the CPSC really meant to say:

If you choose to purchase an unsightly above-ground pool, fence it in.  If fencing is not an option, save yourself the embarrassment of having others know you purchased an above-ground pool by seeking other options.  Small plastic pools are socially acceptable for young children.  There is no shame in having your children observed temporarily playing in such pools.  But please, empty the water and remove the pools from your yard when not in use.  Teach children to clean up their toys.

Even if fencing is an option, understanding why anyone elects to purchase a large, above-ground pool is beyond our pay-grade.  If the CPSC was forthright, they would have taken inspiration from the late Mitch Hedberg:

Do not be persuaded through television advertising to purchase an above-ground pool.  Those commercials are only 30-seconds long because that is the maximum amount of time you can depict yourself having fun in an above-ground pool.  To prevent accidents and overall boredom, please seek out safer, more entertaining alternatives.

With that said, we do applaud the CPSC’s efforts.  Pools do present a risk of drowning.  With an appropriate level of care, many of these accidents can be prevented.  If you do have a pool in your yard – of any type – we refer you to the most important rule formulated by the Commission:

NEVER leave a child unsupervised near any pool or spa.

A defense of the Evos Glider Slide?

Recently, friend of the blog, Max Kennerly, himself of the famed Litigation & Trial blog, tipped us off to commercial playground equipment manufacturer Landscape Structures’ recall of its Evos Slalom Glider slide.  Apparently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued the recall following reports of at least 16 children under 8 years old being seriously injured after allegedly falling from the slide.  There’s already at least one lawsuit against the manufacturer.  After posting his terrific review of the recall, Max informally challenged us via Twitter to defend the product.  (See here and here for those tweets.).

Well, Max, not being ones to back down, we accept the challenge!

For starters, we admit the task of defending the device seems daunting, at least initially.  The slide is narrow and shallow; it offers no handrails.  Its ladder looks like the spinal column of a giraffe.  The Evos might not be the first choice for playground equipment of the overprotective parent.  Clearly, the Evos, at first glance, offers some fodder to the putative Plaintiff’s counsel.  But are they legal ones?

There are two standards to determine design defectiveness:  (1) consumer expectations and (2) risk-utility.  According to the consumer expectations test, a product design is defective if it is dangerous beyond a consumer’s reasonable contemplation.  Here, we would assume that most consumers hope children would be safe while playing on playground equipment.  However, there is clearly a risk of injury on even the most benign playgrounds.  Children can and do fall from swings, ladders, slides, and rock walls all the time.  Of course, many of these items, unlike the Evos, are equipped with railings and other protective measures to prevent falls.   But the design hazards of the Evos are obvious to the reasonable consumer.  The harm of falling from a narrow, handrail-less slide unfortunately should be expected.

Under the risk-utility test, a product’s design is defective if the costs of avoiding potential hazards are foreseeably less than the benefits of taking some safety measures.  There is no question that Landscape Structures could have made the Evos safer.  Theoretically, the manufacturer could have widened, deepened, and added handrails to the product.  If these steps were taken, however, the Evos is no longer an Evos – it’s a normal, ordinary slide.  If the consumer wants a slide, he or she has thousands of slides from which to chose.  Here, the consumer didn’t want a slide, he wanted an Evos.

According to Landscape, the Evos is intended to “promote balance and coordination.”  We have yet to take a ride down a slide that can do the same.

Whether the costs of converting the Evos into an ordinary slide outweigh the benefits of maintaining the very essence of the product is a question of fact.  While there may be some reasonable alternative design, we are not aware of one.  In our humble opinion, if the consumer has concerns about the Evos, then he or she should opt for a traditional slide.  Like all playground equipment, the Evos can certainly be made safer.  But the design of this slide alternative is not significantly more dangerous than the rest of the playground equipment world.

Aside from the alleged defective design, there may be some issue as to whether Landscape failed to warn of the apparent dangers of the Evos.  According to a complaint filed against the company, there is one sticker on the Evos’ ladder demonstrating its proper use.  We doubt too many children are reading warning labels.  The question is whether the label is sufficient to warn the parents.  Admittedly, we haven’t seen the actual label, so we can’t comment on its sufficiency.  Assuming, however, that the label itself is an adequate warning, we have no problem with its location on the Evos’ ladder.  Some may argue that parents are not in the playground structure and lack the ability to see the label.  But think about the alternatives.  One, the label could be applied to the Evos’ “slide.”  This would make the warning visible from the outside of the playground, but how much good is it after the child is already in full descent?  Two, Landscape could make some sort of detached sign.  While it may get the word out, logistically, it seems like a bit of over-kill.

Perhaps, the onus of this situation falls on the parents.  The risks of children playing on the Evos are obvious.  But so too are the risks of small children playing and climbing ladders unassisted on other equipment.  It should be of some significance that of the 16 reported injuries, all of the children are under 8 years of age.  As with any toy, some are better suited for older children.

Let’s allow the parents to decide whether they want their children to play on the Evos.

CPSC: Beware the Dangers of Walking on Water

We here at Abnormal Use work hard to maintain our “street-cred.” We tweet. We use Foursquare. We go to concerts, preferably before you have heard of the band that we are going to see. We watch foreign films that are later (and regrettably) adapted by Hollywood, and we snarl in disdain when anyone mentions the subsequent remakes. However, despite our great efforts to remain hip and relevant, one fad has eluded us, and it was the federal government, of all things, that alerted us to its existence. Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently informed us of something called water walking. Who knew? Certainly not us!

According to this Fox News report, this new trend can be witnessed at amusement parks and carnivals. Water walking is a new recreational activity where individuals roll across the water while encapsulated in large, airtight, plastic balls. While this activity may be entertaining, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of “miraculous,” like that of a certain Biblical figure. Recently, the CPSC warned of the dangers associated with water walking, namely the potential for suffocation. Because the water balls are airtight, the CPSC advises that there is an inadequate air supply within the enclosed spheres required for the activity. In addition, the CPSC expressed concern over the lack of an emergency exit in the event an encapsulated individual becomes distressed. Two incidents of physical injury, both involving children, have already been reported.

It stands to reason that an airtight, plastic ball does not have a limitless supply of oxygen. The CPSC claims that suffocation can occur inside the balls in just a few minutes. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Charles Jones, who claims to have invented the water sphere, disagrees. According to Jones, each 6 1/2 foot water ball contains 90-minutes worth of oxygen. Without empirical evidence as to the oxygen supply, we cannot validate either claim. However, with only two reported incidents despite the numerous participants, it is difficult to envision a scenario where a water walker’s oxygen supply is actually depleted in a matter of minutes. But, hey, don’t ask us; we just heard about water walking the other day, so what do we know?

While the CPSC’s investigation into the safety of water walking continues, they have not resorted to a draconian ban of the water spheres. The CPSC report is a warning. It is merely a lesson that, despite how much fun walking on water may be, the oxygen supply inside your vehicle will eventually be exhausted. If you really want to walk on water without the fear of suffocation, we here at Abnormal Use recommend you start studying the anatomy of the basilisk (aka “Jesus Lizard”). In the meantime, enjoy your rides – albeit short ones – inside the water balls.

Cost-Effective Remedies Not Sufficient to Prevent Ban on Drop-Side Cribs

After recalling more than 11 million dangerous cribs over the last three years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC“) recently approved, effective June 2011, new mandatory safety standards for baby cribs and issued a ban on the manufacture and sale of cribs with drop-down sides. Childcare facilities and hotels have 24 months from the publication of the rule to institute compliant cribs into their facilities. Reports of at least 32 infant strangulation and suffocation deaths since 2000 associated with drop-side cribs prompted the CPSC’s decision.

USA Today reports that prior to the CPSC announcement over 900 incident reports were filed with 14 crib companies indicating that drop-side cribs were falling apart, injuring and killing infants. The combination of malfunctioning hardware, cheap plastics, and problems in assembly would cause the crib’s drop-side rail to detach creating a “V”-like gap and potential “suffocation zone” between the mattress and the side rail.
In response to past recalls, crib manufacturers such as LaJobi and Delta offered free “retrofit” kits to customers to immobilize the drop-side railings. While an immobilized railing deprives the user of the potential benefit of a drop-side crib, there is no evidence that the retrofit conversion kits are ineffective in remedying the safety concerns. Unfortunately, as CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum indicated in her statement [PDF] on crib safety before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, there are still “far too many parents who have not responded to recall announcements.” Even with the lack of recall response, we must question the necessity of an absolute ban which places childcare facilities in a financial quandary during an era of economic uncertainty when cost-effective measures could be taken to alleviate the potential hazards of drop-side cribs. Certainly, childcare facilities would opt for a free retrofit kit when faced with the choice of bearing the expense of replacement costs.
We here at Abnormal Use would never advocate for the continued presence of a product in the marketplace that poses potential serious injury to children. If I discovered that my daughter’s “Handy Manny Talking Tool Box” was defective and posed a serious safety hazard (besides the threat to her father’s sanity after hearing its catchy jingle repetitively), I too would become a persistent voice in the ear of the CPSC. However, a total ban on drop-side cribs only serves to alleviate an alleged design defect at the expense of the consumer.
On one hand, the CPSC is justified in its pursuit of improving crib safety standards. After all, these standards had not been revised since 1982. On the other hand, child care facilities are left to shoulder the burden of these changes when a cost-effective measure could have cured the problem. Presenting childcare facilities with the choice of either complying with the recall or bearing the replacement costs of new cribs would have protected these facilities and still achieved the desired outcome of child safety.
Through this decision, the CPSC is placing manufacturers on notice that it will not tolerate repeated massive recalls of products that pose serious threats to the safety of their users even when a cost-effective measure may be taken to remedy the design defect. Unfortunately, at this time, the CPSC decision still leaves me having to take my own draconian measures to protect myself from the serenade of Handy Manny and his toolbox.