The Case for a More Transparent CPSC

An article published this week in the online magazine Slate makes a compelling case that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an organization many of us think of as an important guardian of Americans’ safety and rights, could do a lot more to make its own workings transparent.

The article begins with a simple example: “Sometime before October 2011, an unknown child was injured by an unknown product that was produced by an unknown manufacturer. The Consumer Product Safety Commission published a report of the injury in its online database of safety complaints.” It also notes that the unnamed company has so far been able to contest what it views as inaccurate charges that its product is unsafe by filing a secret lawsuit against the CPSC, all the while keeping its name, its product and the allegations against it from being identified in the CPSC database.

Perhaps even more shocking is the revelation that when a federal court in Maryland allowed the secret suit to go forward, accepting the company’s argument that letting people know it was being sued might be bad for business, the government opted not to appeal that decision. According to Slate three consumer-advocate groups have since then been “granted permission to intervene by the court in October (and) are pressing on” with the appeal that the federal government refused to lodge.

As Slate notes, “The First Amendment, as well as good old common law, favors public access to court proceedings. The basic principle is that the courts, like the other branches, must be subject to public scrutiny. Public Citizen argues that this is particularly important when the health and safety of consumers is at stake.” One might add that keeping complaints about product safety secret arguably thwarts the intent of Congress, which required the CPSC to set up the online database last year precisely so that Americans could be better informed about potentially dangerous products.

As a Portland personal injury attorney with a particular interest in preventing injuries to children I have often written that one of the most important aspects of our courts is the level playing field they offer for people from all walks of life. Our court system has traditionally been a place where ordinary Americans can get the justice they need and deserve, even when standing up against large and powerful corporations. Placing the economic interests of private companies above the safety interests of the general public here in Oregon and elsewhere flies in the face of both history and tradition. This important case will be worth watching closely as it moves forward. We can only hope that a higher court will agree that a company’s potential embarrassment does not outweigh concern for the public’s welfare.

Slate: The Invisible Case Against the Consumer Product Safety Commission