As the holiday season kicks off this is a good moment to remind ourselves how important safety is, particularly when it comes to preventing injuries to children, especially since some dangers are not as obvious as one might imagine.
A recent report from Michigan Radio, the state’s public radio network, focused on potentially hazardous toys and other common items, taking its cue from an annual survey issued by the state’s Public Interest Research Group. The good news from the PIRG report is that “none of the toys this year tested positive for lead,” but the radio network went on to note that other hazards remain. In particular it quotes an emergency medicine specialist urging parents “to look out for toys that can break into small parts.”
A particular focus of the report is devices that are not toys but which children are apt to play with such as key fobs, small flashlights or inexpensive watches that may contain small ‘button-style’ batteries. These can be “particularly dangerous” if they are swallowed: the moisture in a child’s body can activate the battery’s contacts leading to dangerous burning of the esophagus. The report notes that many of the potential dangers stem from the fact that by law “button batteries have to be held in place on toys with screws – but that’s not a requirement for other common devices.
From a legal perspective it is worth remembering that companies have a responsibility to make their products safe and that this responsibility goes beyond official rules and regulations. Any manufacturer needs to take reasonable precautions to make its products safe and offer reasonable warnings to users about potential dangers. As I have written many times in this space, the federal government in the form of the Consumer Product Safety Commission cannot be counted on to catch every dangerous item out there. Moreover, because its staffing is not great enough to deal with the volume of products it must police the CPSC usually relies on voluntary agreements with manufacturers. Mandatory recalls are extremely rare.
It would be nice to believe that companies can be counted on to do the right thing, rather than putting profits first and waiting until a government or media investigation. As a Portland attorney focusing on injuries to children, however, I am all too aware that this often is not the case. Manufacturers should think about safety, especially children’s safety, at every stage of their business from conception to sales. Our courts are here to help hold them to account when they fail to do so.