Articles Posted in Products Liability

Last week the Associated Press reported on a terrible house fire in Riddle, in rural Douglas County, that left four children dead and their parents and a sibling in critical condition at a Portland hospital. According to the news agency the cause of the deadly house fire was a space heater.

AP cites a Facebook post by the local fire chief in which he explains that “a component of the family’s fireplace that circulated heated air back into the house had malfunctioned several days before. The family bought the space heater to stay warm until they could get the fireplace repaired. Four children ages 4 to 13 died in the blaze.”

As a 2014 article in the Vancouver Columbian noted: “the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that while only two percent of home fires involve portable heaters, they account for a disproportionate 25 percent of fire fatalities.” The paper added a warning for consumers that “it’s easy to miss a recall notice.” Indeed, it is easy to miss precisely because there are so many of them. A search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall database turns up page after page of heater recalls. Every few months some model or other is pulled from the market. This situation has continued for years.

The announcement last month that furniture giant Ikea will pay $50 million to the families of three children killed when its dressers tipped over on top of them may bring closure for families of the victims. The broader question is whether it will lead to long-term changes in the company’s behavior.

As a recent article in The Washington Post outlines “the children, no more than two years old, died when Ikea dressers toppled over with crushing force. In all cases the lethal furniture was one of Ikea’s Malm dressers, a line of popular assemble-it-yourself chests.” The newspaper adds that “such a payout may be among the largest-ever settlements of its type.”

In looking at Oregon’s laws concerning dangerous products and injuries to children large corporations often take solace from ORS 30.910. This states that “it is a disputable presumption in a products liability civil action that a product as manufactured and sold or leased is not unreasonably dangerous for its intended use.”

As the Portland Tribune noted last month, our city recently hosted a major media event in which “a fleet of high-tech electric vehicles were road-tested in downtown Portland by more than a dozen automotive journalists.”

The Tribune reported that “all of the drives went smoothly, with cars easily weaving through midday traffic, even over the Hawthorne Bridge with its notoriously slippery steel grating and the Morrison Bridge with its deteriorating decking.” The test event comes at a moment when self-driving technology is still far from mainstream, but is clearly moving in that direction. Tesla (which, the Tribune reports, did not participate in the Portland event) and Google have both received huge amounts of publicity for the self-driving cars they are working to develop.

That fact, however, makes it all the more important that we use this moment to begin a serious conversation about the legal issues that self-driving cars will inevitably raise. The question is especially timely because it was barely two months ago that “the driver of an all-electric Tesla car was killed in a crash while driving on the manufacturer’s ‘Autopilot’ system.” As the Tribune goes on to note: “”(T)he ‘Autopilot’ name gave the impression the systems – which have never been approved by the federal government – could drive the cars safely by themselves.”

Late last month Ikea agreed to recall 29 million children’s chests and dressers that had been sold in the United States and Canada since 2002. After pressure from the public and state media in China the company extended the recall to that country as well, adding another 1.7 million units to the total, according to a recent article in Slate.

“The Swedish company announced the American recall after the deaths of at least six toddlers, cases where the near-ubiquitous Malm and other models of chests and drawers toppled over and fell onto children,” Slate reported. Yet as the online magazine also reports, Ikea says it has no plans to recall millions more units that have been sold outside North America and China.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission “the recalled chests and dressers are unstable if they are not properly anchored to the wall, posing a serious tip-over and entrapment hazard that can result in death or serious injuries to children.” The announcement on the CPSC website (see link below) noted that the agency and Ikea are aware of three fatalities and at least 17 injuries linked to the chests tipping over. All three of the tragic deaths involved children under the age of two. In each of these cases the chest or dresser in question was not secured to a wall.

An account in The Oregonian this week of a bereaved mother suing both a property management company and a window blind manufacturer in the wake of the death of her 3-year-old daughter is drawing attention to yet another preventable household safety hazard.

According to the newspaper, the toddler was visiting a family friend with her mother in February 2015 “when she became entangled in a dangling cord.” The girl’s mother “was in the same room with her, but hadn’t realized what was happening until it was too late, said a lawyer for the estate.” The suit targets both the property management company that ran the apartment complex in Clackamas, and “blind manufacturer Newell Window Furnishings for allegedly allowing cords longer than 7-1/4 inches to hang from the window covering at the apartment complex” the newspaper reports. That length is the standard recommended by Parents for Window Blind Safety and other advocacy groups.

What is particularly striking about this case is the revelation that the management company allegedly failed “to remove dangerous cords from the apartment even after recalls and retrofitting efforts initiated by blinds makers in 1994 and again in 2000.” One has to ask, however, if the industry has been aware of this critical safety issue for more than 20 years, why are blinds with dangerously long cords still in apartments and homes anywhere?

I have written on many occasions about the scandal surrounding the millions of defective airbags manufactured by the Takata Corporation. These “have been linked to at least 13 deaths worldwide and more than 100 injuries,” according to The New York Times. The recall of some 60 million vehicles equipped with this faulty safety equipment is an ongoing scandal of truly global proportions.

An editorial published earlier this month in The Times, however, is a jarring reminder of what happens when the public’s attention wanders and pressure for change wanes. According to the newspaper “just 8.4 million affected cars had been repaired as of May 20… Last year, the secretary of transportation, Anthony Foxx, said an estimated 20 percent of recalled cars are never repaired, and perhaps more.”

That would be bad enough. But, shockingly: “even now, four automakers – Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi – are selling new cars that contain the faulty airbags, according to a new report by Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee. And Fiat Chrysler and Toyota have refused to disclose which of their models contain the devices,” according to The Times. As an Oregon dangerous products attorney I find this stunning.

A story in The Oregonian this week is especially timely as the legislature considers changes to the ways in which legal recreational marijuana and its derivatives are treated in our state, and serious issues these, in turn, raise concerning injuries to children.

The newspaper recounts how an eight-year-old Klamath Falls boy became sick after eating a marijuana-infused cookie that he found on the ground. The boy’s mother told the paper that after returning from a family trip to a local quarry. “He pulled his chest and made motions that suggested he was choking. He had trouble keeping his eyes open,” the paper reports. It then quotes the mother saying “he said everything looked like a cartoon… He said he was vibrating all over.” A trip to the ER followed, along with five hours of treatment and observations. The boy is now fine.

The broader fallout from this incident may continue for some time, however, and is likely to resonate in the halls of the Oregon legislature in Salem. As The Oregonian notes, “the incident comes as Oregon public health officials and marijuana industry representatives debate the appropriate serving size for marijuana edibles.” Regulators have proposed serving size and concentration levels that are only half of what is allowed by Colorado and Washington “in part to protect novices and children who accidently eat the products.” This particular instance is a case in point: a single cookie contained two adult-size portions of marijuana’s active ingredient, a chemical compound known as THC. Many people unfamiliar with pot cookies or brownies may not be aware that unlike the ordinary versions of the same product one is not supposed to eat the entire thing.

The scandal surrounding defective auto airbags manufactured by the Japanese company Takata got worse this week. According to a story just published by the New York Times “Honda Motor Co. said Friday that it would recall 5.7 million cars worldwide in the latest round of recalls involving Takata Corp. air bag inflators that can explode and hurl shrapnel into the vehicle.”

The paper reports that about 2.2 million of those vehicles are here in the United States. That’s on top of the 24 million units from Honda and other companies that were already on the recall list in the United States alone – and tens of millions more worldwide. It is a scandal that has only grown over the last year. According to the Times 11 deaths and at least 139 injuries have been inked to the shrapnel-laden airbags..

The latest recall notices came just days after senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut “called on the Obama administration in a letter to force the recall of every Takata airbag that uses a propellant that contains a compound called ammonium nitrate, which can degrade over time and become unstable,” according to a separate Times article published earlier in the week.

US car makers may no longer dominate their industry they way they did a generation or two ago, but, as the New York Times recently detailed, their political clout in Washington remains formidable. As a result, the industry enjoys protections for unsafe and irresponsible behavior that other industries do not even when it results in auto accidents here in Oregon and elsewhere.

The newspaper reports that “legal loopholes that the auto industry helped create” are complicating efforts to hold both the auto makers and individuals working for them accountable for defective products they sold to millions of Americans over a period of years – products that led to many deaths and injuries.

“In one prominent example, lobbyists and trade groups blunted a law requiring car companies to notify regulators of certain safety defects within five working days, persuading Congress to water it down so that it carries only civil penalties, not criminal liability,” the paper notes. The article goes on to outline sensible proposals for accountability put forward over the last several decades by Republicans and Democrats alike, all of which have been eliminated or gutted in final legislation. It notes that “other industries, like pharmaceuticals and food” do not enjoy similar protections.

A party line vote in the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee this week marked a big win for industry lobbyists and loss for consumers. According to a report in the Washington Post the approved legislation, which now heads to the full Senate, “brims with industry-sought provisions that would block, delay or roll back safety rules.”

The newspaper’s account focuses in particular on auto and rail safety. According to the Post the bill “would block a new Department of Transportation rule requiring that trains hauling crude oil are equipped with electronically-controlled brakes that affect all cars at the same time.” It would also delay rules requiring both freight and passenger trains to have “positive train control” safety systems, despite the fact that most observers believe the recent fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia could have been avoided if a PTC system had been in place on the train in question.

On our roads, the bill would roll back measures intended to curb car accidents here in Oregon and around the nation by increasing the size of the fines the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can assess against auto makers. Those fines are currently capped at $35 million – a relatively small sum for any big global carmaker – at a time of record-shattering auto recalls. The NHTSA had sought the authority to levy fines of up to $300 million, believing that the higher number would give car companies more incentive to put safety first. The committee reduced that to $70 million.