The video is horrific. It shows two toddlers playing on a Peloton treadmill, apparently without adult supervision. The younger of the two, a boy, tries to place a ball on the treadmill’s moving belt and is almost immediately pulled underneath the still-running machine. He manages to extract himself only to be pulled back in a few seconds later – this time further underneath the machine and with his neck bent at a frightening angle.
The whole thing lasts about a minute and at the end the small boy frees himself again before walking out of the picture. The video was posted to the internet by the Consumer Product Safety Commission more than two weeks ago. According to CNN “the agency issued an ‘urgent warning’ for users of the machine. At the time the CPSC said it was aware of at least 39 accidents involving the treadmill including ‘multiple reports of children becoming entrapped, pinned and pulled under’ the device.”
Peloton initially pushed back, calling the CPSC warning “inaccurate and misleading” according to CNN, but reversed course last week, agreeing to recall some 125,000 of the treadmills. Meanwhile, updated CPSC data now indicate that at least one child has died and 70 others have been injured by the devices, which cost between $2500 and $4300.
Every time I write about the CPSC the same question arises: why is it so hard to get corporate America to admit a product is dangerous or defective? Time and time again evidence mounts – first anecdotal, then viral, then official. In this case, as in so many others, Peloton, strictly speaking, acted on its own to recall these dangerous treadmills. Yet it did so only after it became clear that if they did not issue a voluntary recall the CPSC was about to order a mandatory one. It should not take this kind of government threat to get companies to do what is so obviously the right thing.
Like most states, Oregon has laws that govern defective products and specify when responsibility for those defects falls back on the manufacturer. ORS Chapter 30 is the key section of our state law governing product liability. The laws’ scope is defined in ORS 30.900, and expanded on more specifically in ORS 30.925. Damages can be claimed not only because of design or manufacturing faults, but also if the user was not properly warned of the dangers using the item – even using it properly – could involve. ORS 30.900 also requires that a product have proper instructions. Importantly, it places this burden not only on manufacturers but also on distributors, retailers and people who lease items for someone else’s use.
As specified in ORS 30.925 punitive damages can also be awarded when someone is killed or injured by a dangerous product. Among the factors the court is allowed to consider in setting these damages are the likelihood that there would be a dangerous problem, how long the manufacturer or seller knew about it and how much they profited from that knowledge.
It is also important to note that, as the Oregon Bar Association writes, “disclaimers or limitations of liability in the seller’s or manufacturer’s sales contracts or product literature do not prevent an injured person from recovering damages.”
Equally important, a voluntary recall at the behest of the federal government does not, in itself, put the company in the clear.
As an attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington I have often seen cases like this, in which companies put something dangerous out onto the market but are reluctant to accept that reality.
Any cases involving the Peloton treadmills will be particularly interesting to follow because it must be asked how early Peloton knew there was a problem. As most people know, Peloton does not sell ordinary treadmills and exercise bikes. Its products are constantly tied to the company via the internet. That means that users can take ‘group’ classes in the privacy of their own homes. But it also means that the machine itself is constantly collecting information on its own operation and status and sending that information back to Peloton. How did the company balance consumer and government complaints against data that may have shown the equipment was functioning ‘normally’? Did the data stream itself alert the company to problems?
As litigation surrounding these treadmills evolves it will be important to figure out what the company knew, or should reasonably have learned, about its own products well before people complained to the government or posted videos on YouTube.
Oregon State Bar: Liability for Defective Products