Articles Posted in Unsafe Products

Last week a jury in St. Louis became the fourth in a year to award substantial damages to a plaintiff who believes that consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson’s talcum power is linked to ovarian cancer. According to a Bloomberg News report, the Missouri jury awarded the woman $110 million in damages. This follows three jury verdicts of $55 to $72 million in similar cases last year (the company has won one case during the same period, according to Bloomberg). Appeals are expected in all of the cases.

The agency quotes the attorney for the plaintiff in the St. Louis case saying: “Once again we’ve shown that these companies ignored the scientific evidence and continue to deny their responsibilities to the women of America… they chose to put profits over people, spending millions in efforts to manipulate scientific and regulatory scrutiny.” In addition to the millions in damages from J&J the jury also Imerys Talc America, a separate company that manufacturers talc sold under the J&J label, to pay $100,000 in damages.

Bloomberg reports that more than 1000 cases alleging a link between J&J’s talc and ovarian cancer have already been filed. Though J&J is headquartered in New Jersey many of these cases have been filed in Missouri because that state’s laws allow for suits like these to be filed in its courts even when the plaintiff has no connection to the state (last week’s $110 million verdict involved a woman from Virginia). But is it necessary for all these cases to head for the Midwest? Are the product liability laws here in Oregon adequate to address cases like this?

2016 saw “the largest number of children’s product recalls in more than a decade,” according to the Chicago Tribune and a report published earlier this month by the non-profit watchdog group Kids in Danger.

The unusually high total was driven by two especially high-profile recalls: IKEA’s withdrawal of its Malm collection dressers and chests of drawers (click here for the blog I wrote on the subject after a $50 million settlement in the case was announced late last year) and McDonald’s move to recall millions of activity watches after the wristbands were found to cause skin irritations. The Tribune reports that each of these incidents accounted for around 29 million units out of a total of nearly 67 million units of children’s products pulled off the market in 2016.

The executive director of Kids in Danger, speaking to the newspaper, summarized the problem succinctly: “This is not a regulatory problem,” she said. “This is a problem with companies not acting quickly enough to take what is a dangerous product out of use.” The IKEA case is a particularly striking example because the now-recalled dressers had been on the market for many years. One death linked to them took place in 1989.

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.”

Two months ago I wrote about the legal issues surrounding traveling carnivals and the fact that in many parts of the country they receive far fewer safety inspections than one might think. The death last week of a 10-year-old boy who was riding what is billed as the world’s largest waterslide, has brought these issues sharply into focus with new attention being paid to fixed-location rides in theme parks, and how they differ, in regulatory terms, from traveling carnivals. The 168-foot-tall waterslide where this month’s tragedy occurred is located at an amusement park near Kansas City, Kansas.

One might expect that large rides designed to induce an adrenaline rush through speed and danger would receive more regular and more careful attention than a traveling show: they offer even greater potential danger (because of the heights and speeds involved) yet are far easier to inspect (since they are not constantly moving from town to town). As the reporting since last week’s tragedy has shown, however, that assumption is badly misplaced.

The Kansas City Star reports that the “responsibility for inspecting Schlitterbahn water park rests primarily with its owners, not any state or federal agency.” The newspaper added that the water slide where the boy died “had not been inspected by the state since it opened two years ago, government records show.” More tellingly, the paper reports that a Kansas law governing amusement park rides requires annual inspections but allows these to be conducted by private-sector inspectors hired by the ride’s owners. The state can audit the inspection records, but is prevented by law from doing so more than twice every six months. According to the Star there have been no state inspections of the waterslide where the boy died in the two years since the ride opened.

A California family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in response to a vehicle fire caused by a rear-end collision. The accident claimed the life of the family’s father early last year.

According to CBS Los Angeles the fatal accident took place in Ontario, California, east of LA, in January of 2015. The man was traveling in “a model year 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee.” Within seconds of a rear-end collision “the Jeep burst into flames,” according to the TV station’s report.

At the heart of the case are questions about dangerous products and their design flaws. The model year of the vehicle is one of the most important elements of this tragic case. As the TV station reports, “in June of 2013 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Chrysler to recall earlier model years, specifically Grand Cherokees built between 1993 and 1998 due to concerns about gas tanks catching on fire. But there were no recalls for later model years between 1999 and 2004.” This is significant because those years include models in which the gas tank is positioned directly behind the rear axle – a location that significantly increases the chances of a vehicle fire in the event of even a minor rear-end collision.

Is there any example of a hot consumer product becoming toxic quite as quickly as the hoverboard? The Oregonian reported this week that retailing giant Amazon “recently pulled the item from its marketplaces” barely three months after hoverboards were the ‘must-have’ gift of the holiday season.

The reason for the change of heart is well-known. As dangerous products go it is hard to imagine any recent consumer item whose fortunes have reversed quite so quickly. Over the course of 2015 the gyroscope-powered toys went from a rare curiosity to a pop-culture phenomenon. Then, just as sales were hitting stratospheric heights, reports – and dramatic videos – emerged of the devices spontaneously bursting into flames (this, as The Oregonian notes, is in addition to “other risks to the public as evidenced from plenty of video compilations prominently featuring people falling off of them.”).

Now, only weeks later, “the obscenely popular holiday gadget was silently and unceremoniously dropped from all Amazon’s electronics pages… the U.S. government recently declared the gadgets an “imminent hazard” and… locally, the University of Oregon banned hoverboards in January, going so far as to supply students with fireproof storage for any of the errant gadgets.”

Laundry ‘pods’ – essentially pre-packaged detergent that can be thrown in the machine with no need to measure it – have only been around for a few years but have quickly become popular here in Oregon and across the country. As a recent story on MyCentralOregon.com details, however, they also pose a significant risk of Oregon injuries to children – a risk critical enough that the industry is being forced to take note.

According to the website “after tens of thousands of calls from frightened caregivers to poison control centers across the country” the products are being remade. The site reports that according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers there were nearly 12,000 incidents involving laundry pods and children age six or younger last year. This year there were 7,184 such incidents through July – a figure that puts the country on pace to surpass that shocking 2014 number.

As a result Consumer Reports is recommending that people with young children in the house not use liquid laundry pods. When swallowed, the liquid detergent can “sometimes cause children to experience excessive vomiting and difficulty breathing,” MyCentralOregon reports.

NBC news is reporting this weekend that Britax, a major manufacturer of child car seats, “is recalling 37 models of its car seats due to a potential safety defect that could prevent harnesses from locking.”

In a web article the news organization reports that the recall order effects models built between August 1 of last year and the end of last month. The seats in question “may have a defective harness adjuster button that stays in the ‘release’ position when the harness is tightened, rendering the seat useless.” NBC adds that up to now no injuries to children have been reported as a result of the defect.

For its part, the company’s product recall page (see link below) offers detailed information on how to locate the manufacture date and serial number on Britax car seats and then use those to determine whether or not a particular seat is included in the recall order.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a recall notice regarding millions of dressers sold by furniture giant IKEA, announcing last week that the company is offering free repair kits to customers.

According to the CPSC notice (see link below) “the chests and dressers can pose a tip-over hazard if not securely anchored to the wall.” The danger of injuries to children is especially acute from this defective product. The models effected are the “MALM 3- and 4-drawer chests and two styles of MALM 6-drawer chests… about 7 million MALM chests and 20 million other IKEA chests and dressers are part of the nationwide repair program.”

The recall follows reports of two children’s deaths after IKEA dressers tipped over on them. The agency notes that “consumers should immediately stop using all IKEA children’s chests and dressers taller than 23-1/2 inches and adult chests and dressers taller than 29-1/2 inches, unless they are securely anchored to the wall.” As part of the recall IKEA is offering free wall anchoring kits to consumers.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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