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.”
Read in one way this seems to say simply ‘buyer beware’. But the case law that has developed around ORS 30.910 tells a different story and, indeed, offers ordinary Oregonians some significant tools when it comes to holding reckless companies accountable for their actions. In particular, the 1993 case of Glover v BIC Corp (987 F2d 1410) established the principle that
courts must “balance utility of risk created against magnitude of risk”. In other words, ORS 30.910 does not exempt companies from the legal need to build safe products and to the degree that some products are inherently dangerous, scissors, for example, or a stove, companies have a responsibility to see that their goods are no more unsafe than they need to be. When they fail to do this our court and regulatory systems are here to hold them accountable.
Washington State’s product liability code is somewhat more straightforward, declaring directly manufacturers are liable for damages if a product “was not reasonably safe as designed or not reasonably safe because adequate warnings or instructions were not provided.” (RCW 7.72.030)
As a Portland attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington with extensive experience in cases focusing on injuries to children my job is to help families navigate the differences between these and other state and federal laws, and to assure them that help is available even when it seems they are not fighting with corporate America on an even playing field. The Ikea settlement is an excellent example of what a combination of government pressure, media exposure and the threat of litigation can do to hold even a global company accountable for its actions.
Oregon Revised Statutes 30.920: Product Liability