Articles Posted in Unsafe Products

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.

An article published yesterday in the Washington Post reported that since early last year the federal government has been “investigating a potentially high rate of trailer separations.” The research focuses specifically on a particular type of trailer hitch used on semi-trailer trucks, known as the “Ultra LT.” According to the paper the Ultra LT is manufactured by Alabama-based Fontaine Fifth Wheel.

“The Ultra LT could be in use on as many as 6,000 semis across the nation,” the Post reports. According to the newspaper the company is cooperating with the government investigation.

This potentially unsafe product, and the Oregon truck accidents it may lead to, is a cause for special worry because it has been nearly 18 months since the Ohio accident that set the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation in motion.

On the eve of a US Senate hearing focused on the Takata airbag recall, Senate Democrats have issued “a 45-page report into the nation’s largest-ever recall of about 34 million vehicles by 11 automakers for air bags that can explode and send shrapnel flying,” according to the Detroit News. The paper notes that it was only last Friday that the airbag manufacturer acknowledged an eighth documented death linked to its defective safety equipment.

According to the newspaper, the Senate report found that more than a decade after engineers first became aware of the problem “no one can identify a root cause for the ruptures.” The defect in the Takata airbags causes the gas canisters used to inflate the bags to explode, sending potentially lethal shrapnel flying into the faces and bodies of people riding in the car.

As company executives prepare to face Congress another fact reported by the Detroit News is even more shocking. According to the Senate document, even the replacement parts Takata is providing to millions of families here in Oregon and around the country are not necessarily safe. “Takata is currently producing hundreds of thousands of replacement inflators each month that may or may not completely eliminate the risk of air bag rupture,” the report says. The idea that the company is replacing defective and potentially fatal air bag inflators with parts that may themselves also be defective is difficult to comprehend.

Reports late last week that Blue Bell, the troubled Texas-based ice cream company, “will lay off more than a third of its workforce following a series of listeria illnesses linked to its ice cream,” according to the Associated Press, are the latest example of a company putting its profits ahead of responsibility to its workers or to society at large.

As the news agency reports “the 108-year old company’s production plants in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama have been closed since Blue Bell issued a full recall in April. The company’s ice cream has been linked to listeria illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.” Though the article quotes the company’s CEO saying “our employees are part of our family” it is difficult to balance that statement against revelations by the Houston Chronicle that the company knew it was distributing unsafe products two years ago, but kept the matter secret and continued with business as usual.

“Blue Bell Creameries found strong evidence of listeria in its Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plant as early as 2013 but failed to improve its sanitation programs, according to findings released… by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” the newspaper reported last week.

An article that appeared this week in the New York Times detailed the legal struggles of some of the victims of General Motors’ corporate negligence – struggles made worse by misguided laws designed to protect corporate bottom lines at the expense of public health and safety.

As I have written about many times this year, the giant auto maker is in serious legal trouble as evidence has emerged that it knew for years about defects in its cars’ ignition switches but did little to fix them. As the Times notes, “Today, at least 42 people are known to have died in crashes linked to the defective ignition switch, and both GM and federal safety regulators have come under fire for allowing the danger to linger for more than a decade.”

What could make a situation like this even worse? A legal system that limits the damages a bereaved family can collect. The Times article details the struggle of two Wisconsin families. Both lost loved ones to the GM defect, but neither was able to get any Wisconsin attorney to take their case because of a state law capping damage awards at $350,000. Every law firm approached by both families eventually decided that the limit on potential damages made it impossible for them to fight a huge company like GM without ultimately losing money.

An article this week in The New York Times highlights the extraordinary measures some companies will take to avoid responsibility for their own actions. According to the newspaper, “General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website” that strips consumers of their right to sue the company for actions as simple as downloading a coupon or ‘liking’ the company or its products on Facebook.

Even more extraordinary, the paper reports: “In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.”

The website language requires disputes with the company to be settled through arbitration rather than in the courts. Arbitration clauses have been common in the financial industry for decades but have steadily crept into other areas of American life in recent years. Large companies prefer arbitration because, unlike a trial, it is not open to the public and because the process, while supposedly fair, tends to favor deep-pocketed businesses. Since a 2011 Supreme Court ruling upholding the use of arbitration clauses in cellphone contracts this legal device has spread rabidly through the corporate world.

A few days ago Michael Smerconish, a long-time talk-radio fixture who recently began hosting a show on CNN, ended his daily broadcast with a short commentary (see link below) that began as an essay about the GM ignition-switch scandal but ended up making a broader – and more important – point.

I have written several times recently about the ignition-switch situation. The faulty switches, mainly in Chevy Cobalts though other models are also effected, can sometimes turn the entire car off while it is moving at highway speeds, causing drivers to lose control. In the process they can also disable airbags. The problem led to fatal auto accidents involving at least 13 deaths (that is the number GM publicly acknowledges) and the recall of millions of vehicles – some of which have been on the road for more than a decade. The scandal has grown as it becomes clear that GM knew about the problem for years but was unwilling to spend pennies per car to fix it.

Telling his audience about the lawsuit that began the process bringing all of this to light, Smerconish recounts the story of a family searching for answers in the wake of the death of their 29-year-old daughter, of their decision to hire a lawyer and of that lawyer’s move to commission an independent assessment of the car. Everything that has happened in the years since began with this one case.

With barely two weeks to go until election day voters in Washington won a victory this week even before they go to the polls to decide the fate of Initiative 522. According to an article published Friday in The Oregonian a major opponent of the GMO-labeling initiative bowed to pressure from the Washington State attorney general and agreed to disclose the names and contributions of major donors to an anti-522 campaign.

Washington State Initiative 522 would require the labeling of foods produced using genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. A similar ballot initiative in California failed in 2012 after a strong ‘vote no’ campaign funded by the food industry. With Washington voters scheduled to go to the polls on November 5 the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, “agreed to make public a long list of donors to its anti-labeling campaign after being sued this week by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He charged that the Association violated the state’s disclosure laws by setting up an internal fund that solicited money from its members to fight the initiative,” the newspaper reports.

According to The Oregonian, the GMA has put over $7 million into the anti-522 campaign, with almost half of that coming just from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle.

Amid all the discussion surrounding this week’s government shutdown a lot of attention has been paid both to large budget issues and to the daily inconveniences – and, in some cases serious troubles – the suspension of government services involves for many Americans.

One of the most potentially hazardous areas of the shut down may prove to be consumer safety. As an article this week at Boston.com (the website of the Boston Globe) explains, as part of the broader shut down the Consumer Product Safety Commission “is only announcing recalls that pose an imminent risk to the public.”

As though to demonstrate what exactly that might mean, on Thursday the CPSC recalled “some 15 million surge protectors sold for a decade at some of the nation’s largest retailers… after more than 700 reports of the strips overheating.” It is, of course, very good to see the CPSC still at work, even in a much diminished form, but one also must ask whether this is the bar that product recalls must cross for as long as the current government funding crisis continues.

Relatives of a Bend man who died in 2010 while using an inversion therapy table have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Eugene against the Washington-based manufacturer of the table, according to a recent article in The Oregonian.

According to the newspaper, the lawsuit alleges that the 64-year-old Oregon man “was using the table when he became trapped in the inverted position and was unable to return to the upright position or to remove himself from the machine.” The manufacturer “promotes the product on TV and online as a way to relieve back pain, improve joint health and build muscle tone,” the paper reports.

The Oregonian cites a representative from the Oregon Medical Examiner’s Office reporting that the man died from asphyxia. The coroner ruled the death accidental, but this suit raises important product safety issues. The suit alleges that the victim was unable to get himself back into the upright position despite “effort over a prolonged period” to do so.

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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