CPSC Slaps Office Depot 3.4 Million Times in Chair-tastrophe

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has fined paper-and-pencil-pusher Office Depot $3.4 million for its failure to report defects in its Gibson Leather and Quantum office chairs. The two shared a common problem – a sudden collapse of the seat base and a common retailer with a high resistance to recalls – but had different failure modes and price points.

Office Chair from Hell Finally Recalled

After years of subjecting an unsuspecting public to an office chair with “welds” that break, flipping the occupant backwards, Office Depot, the exclusive seller of the sudden ejection machine, is recalling 1.4 million units sold between 2003 and 2012. According to a release issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the office supply company had received 153 reports of the seat plate weld cracking or breaking, including 25 contusions, abrasions, injuries to the head, neck and a fractured back and hip.

That hip fracture was sustained by Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas, who in March 2010, was sitting in a Gibson chair when it suddenly collapsed. The chair was manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold by Office Depot.  The seat plate underneath her chair had separated from the chair base, because of a weld failure at that juncture. Ms. Losey fell to the floor and broke her hip, requiring a hip replacement surgery.

 In October 2012, San Antonio attorney Paula Wyatt, who represented Losey in a product liability case against Swinton Avenue Trading, set this resolution into slow motion, by writing to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alerting them to Losey’s injuries, and the amazing similarities between the Gibson and the Biella Office Chair, which bore the same product registration number and same bad weld in same critical place, but had already been recalled in April 2012. At the time, the Biella only had 11 complaints, compared to 18 between 2009 and 2010, for the Gibson. But, there were fewer Biella’s out there – 307,000 units. Under that recall, the remedy was a $55 store card – the price of the chair.

 The CPSC opened an investigation, but there was no immediate action. And today there was no immediate response to our question: Why in the heck did this take so long? CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson did say:

"CPSC produced a humorous video a few years ago to promote the use of SaferProducts.gov and it involved a man falling off of an office chair.  The video was based on actual incidents and today's recall of a related hazard with office chairs is another example of the importance of reporting safety incidents via SaferProducts.gov."

The Safety Record Blog gave Wyatt an assist by writing about this evil piece of furniture (see Office Depot Declines to Launch Recall for a Chair that Launches Occupants Backwards and CPSC Investigates the Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget), and highlighting the frustrations of one Jesse Clackum, who blogged about her fruitless attempts to make the Swinton Avenue Trading Company take responsibility for the collapsing chair. In late 2006, Clackum, based in Florida, was one of the Gibson Leather Office Chair’s hapless victims. Her version of a Swinton Avenue Trading Company office chair, retailing at $119.00, was only 14-months old when it collapsed after the weld at the base of the chair failed. Clackum immediately contacted Office Depot looking for restitution, but the office supply retail giant blew her off, and told her that she should have bought the extended warranty.  Clackum tracked down the manufacturer – the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, an entity which turned out to be unreachable – no phone number, just a PO address.

Graco’s Perception Problem

Leiana Marie Ramirez was three days shy of her second birthday, when she was burned alive, strapped in a Graco Nautilus child safety seat.

 On August 26, 2011, her mother, Samika Ramirez had been out running errands related to Leiana’ party – delivering cupcakes to her pre-school, shopping for Lieana’s birthday present. The pair was on the way home, southbound on Arroyo Seco Parkway in South Pasadena, when Samika felt her Nissan Altima swerve, and thinking she had a flat, regained control of her vehicle, stopped in the left-most lane and put on her flashers. The divided highway had no breakdown lane, just a narrow shoulder.

 Ramirez was about to call AAA, when another driver, who hadn’t noticed the stopped Altima, plowed into its rear end. The vehicle almost immediately caught fire. According to the police reports, Samika tried frantically to unbuckle her daughter, but could not release the harness. The flames engulfing her car were too intense, and onlookers pulled Samika Ramirez out of the car, while Leianna stayed behind. She witnessed her daughter’s death.

 More than a year later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would open an investigation – still pending – that would eventually result in a recall of the Graco Nautilus and 17 other models for buckles that were so difficult to unlatch that some consumers complained to NHTSA that they had to cut the belt webbing to get their children out of the seat. And, from the beginning, Graco would concede that it was “keenly aware of the issue.” Indeed, it had collected more than 6,100 complaints about it.

 But Graco insisted that the inability to extract a child from the car seat was merely “a consumer frustration and a consumer experience that Graco has been working to improve.” To this date, Graco has not acknowledged that this defect led to a horrific death – not in its responses to the agency’s investigative information requests; not in its Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report and not in its Early Warning Reports. The company paid a big fine to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2005 for a long history of failing to report injuries and deaths. Even now, with the initial recall expanded and under a Special Order to answer all questions truthfully, Graco comforts its customers on its website:

 Graco can assure you there have been no reported injuries as a result of the harness buckles used on Graco car seats. We want to stress that our car seats are safe and effective in restraining children.  And, the safest way to transport a child is always in a car seat.

 NHTSA declined to comment on Graco’s stance, via a statement to The Safety Record:

 “Although Graco has submitted a defect notice in response to NHTSA’s recall request, our investigation remains open.  As such, the agency cannot discuss or comment at this time.”

 Attorney Christine Spagnoli, who represents the Ramirez family, says that Graco’s failure to acknowledge Leiana’s death will negatively affect the efficacy of the recall”

 “To me the issue is this: by putting on their website that there are no reported claims and by telling that to NHTSA, They are trying to dissuade people from getting new buckles,” says Spagnoli of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, LLP. “This is a safety issue, and by saying something false to the public, they’re trying to save money, at the expense of kids getting hurt.”

 The Investigation

 The Preliminary Evaluation into Graco buckles opened in October 2012 with 25 complaints reported to NHTSA via their Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, containing hypotheticals that echoed the Ramirez incident, like this one, filed with the agency in September 2012:

A Compliance Investigation on Home Elevators: Going Down

It took six weeks of near-daily asking, but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has finally allowed a statement on its actions regarding home elevator entrapment hazards to trickle out of the bedrock that is 6B (the section of the Consumer Product Safety Act that allows manufacturers to control the flow of information from the CPSC.):

“The agency has an active and ongoing compliance investigation regarding the safety of residential elevators and the entrapment hazard they can present,” the CPSC said.

This “active and ongoing” compliance investigation emanates from a March presentation that Atlanta attorneys Andy Cash and Dave Krugler made to the CPSC staff on behalf of the Helvey family, whose six-year-old son suffered a severe head injury after becoming entrapped in a home elevator on Christmas Eve, 2010. The Helvey’s elevator was a National Wheel-o-Vator, now owned by Thyssenkrupp. The CPSC has jurisdiction over elevators used in residential settings as a consumer product. They are not subject to any mandatory federal standards, only industry-written voluntary standards, which may or may not have been adopted by states as a legal requirement.

And as part of its official statement, the CPSC also said this:

“While CPSC investigates the role and responsibilities of manufacturers and installers when it comes to the safety of residential elevators, owners of residential elevators should take steps to ensure children do not have unsupervised access to in-home elevators.” 

Michael and Brandi Helvey strongly refuted any suggestions that parents are to blame – the classic manufacturers’ response when their mis-designed or mis-manufactured products start causing harm in the marketplace. They had been scrupulous in installing gates on all the stairs, styrofoam covers on the sharp stone corners of the fireplace, childproof kitchen cabinet locks and a front door deadbolt to ensure Jacob couldn’t get out.

The Elevator Design Hazard That’s Been Killing Children for Decades

On Christmas Eve 2010, three-year-old Jacob Helvey tried to take the small National Wheel-O-Vator elevator in his Atlanta home to follow his mother Brandi, who had gone to the second floor to momentarily move some laundry. The Helveys are protective parents who didn’t allow their son to play in the elevator, so Jacob had never taken it by himself before. He accidentally entrapped himself between the hoistway door, which in home elevators, is a swing-type door that resembles any closet or room door, and the accordion-style door that encloses the elevator itself. Once that outer door closes, it automatically locks – a safety feature to ensure the hoistway door cannot be not opened while the elevator is in operation. It’s an old design that was common in small commercial buildings when elevators had attendants, and is still used today in home elevators.

[flashvideo file=video/BrickmanAnimation.flv image="video/BrickmanAnimationPrevew.jpg" /]

Animation by Dennis Brickman, Engineering Systems, Inc.

Helvey, at 3-feet-2-inches and 31 pounds, was situated with his back against the accordion door, and his head turned sideways in its valley. Brandi could hear a commotion downstairs and summoned the elevator to check it out. As the elevator rose, and re-leveled, Jacob’s body fell through the space between the sill and the elevator car. When it stopped, the elevator was on Jacob’s back, with his head above the sill, compressed for 10 minutes while his mother, Brandi, pried the door open and a neighbor and police used a shovel and 2 by 6 to ease the elevator off his body  He suffered brain damage. Jacob, now five and a half years old, is slowly progressing, say his parents Brandi and Michael.

The Ill of the Grill

If you experience searing pain after searing a steak on the grill, a small wire grill brush bristle may be to blame. Tristin Beck of Mount Lake Terrace, Washington and Brittany Berg of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, were among the most recent cases to hit the news. Both teens wound up in a hospital operating room after accidentally ingesting a filament of grill brush wire embedded in the food they had been eating.

This phenomenon gained prominence last year, after U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and Consumer Reports joined together to call on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine whether grill brushes were safe and to warn consumers of the potential hazard, based on incidents that occurred in New Jersey and Washington State. The Centers for Disease Control followed up with an item in its Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report (WMMR) authored by a team of Rhode Island emergency room doctors and radiologists documenting the not-so-rare occurrence of grill brush wire ingestion.

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Triple Threat? The GAO Audits Saferproducts.gov

Three years ago, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to solicit the public’s advice and counsel on the development of a consumer complaint database, manufacturers and the purveyors of consumer products forecast the end of capitalism. The database would be full of false reports, besmirching the snowy reputations of good and humble companies, who existed only to serve their customers according to the highest standards of retail integrity. And as this pool of complaints spread and deepened, tort lawyers would cast their lines, hooking cases with no actual merit but heavy with potential to drive said good and humble companies out of existence.

They stamped their feet and waved their fists, but the database was mandated as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. A few rearguard actions were mounted to kill its funding, but they met with no greater success.

Saferproducts.gov debuted in March 2011. If you are afraid you missed the apocalypse, no worries. It didn’t happen. According to a rather mild – dare we say boring – Government Accounting Office report, the rumors of the free market’s demise at the hands of a consumer compliant database were greatly exaggerated. In fact, few consumers have actually used Saferproducts.gov to report an incident – only 12,030 from April 2011 to January 2013. The GAO, which conducted the performance audit from July 2012 to March 2013, found that more than 97 percent who used the website to report an alleged product failure identified themselves as consumers. In more than half the cases, the reporter identified him or herself – or a relative (parent, child, spouse) as the victim.

Most of the consumers who test drove the website for the GAO auditors found it easy to use. None of the group had heard of Saferproducts.gov before, and only a few understood the basic mission of the CPSC. Some were put off by requests that reporters register with the website. A few suggested helpfully that the website would be more aptly named Unsafeproducts.gov. (Now would that go over big with industry.)  

CPSC Investigates the Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget

Last month, The Safety Record Blog wrote about the Gibson Office Chair, a product sold exclusively by Office Depot, and plagued with a bad weld that often broke as occupants leaned backwards.

The Gibson was, structurally, a clone of the Biella leather desk chair, which Office Depot recalled in April. Both shared the same product registration number, were manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company in China and imported by an outfit called the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, of Boca Raton, Fla. If a slew of Internet commenters can be believed, the Office Depot staff routinely told disgruntled consumers with broken chairs to seek recompense from the importer, which was conveniently inaccessible to the public.

In April, the retail giant was silent on the fate of the Gibson model. Today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told SRS that the agency had opened a new investigation into the Gibson to determine if it “poses a similar risk to consumers.”

Further, Office Depot took pains to inform the CPSC that “there was an error in the identity of the importer of the Biella brand leather desk chairs. Office Depot® is the correct importer for the Biella brand leather desk chairs and also for the chairs that are the subject of the new investigation,” CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said  

Office Depot had recalled 307,000 Biella chairs, retailing at $55. In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt informed the CPSC of the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Wyatt represented Nancy Losey in a civil lawsuit against Swinton Avenue Trading. The San Antonio, Texas woman needed a hip replacement after the seat weld in her Gibson Office chair snapped, sending her to the floor. The biggest differences between the Biella and the Gibson were price and have been how many complaints Office Depot got about the two. The Gibson, retailing at about $40 attracted 18 complaints, compared to the 11 complaints that got the $55 Biella recalled.

The Fallout from Fire Pots Continues, Will Regulations Follow?

On July 4, three people were severely injured in Del Mar, California, when a firepot exploded as it was re-fueled, spraying the viscous alcohol-based gel on victims sitting less than 10 feet away.

According to a July 12 report in the Del Mar Times newspaper: “One of the victims suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of their body and had to be transported via helicopter to a hospital. The other two victims each suffered second and third degree burns over 20-30 percent of their body and were taken to the hospital via ambulance.”

In December 2011, a luckier consumer reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s public consumer complaint database, SaferProducts.gov:

“I purchased Firegel pourable Citronella from Bed Bath and Beyond. I went to pour some more in my fire pot and I guess it was still hot. The gel shot out, caught the bottle of firegel on fire and caught my patio chair on fire. Luckily it did not get on my skin and I put the lid on the bottle and it went out. I was also able to stomp my chair out but it was ruined.

Despite a total of 15 companies yanking the product of its shelves, and September 2011 announcement that nine manufacturers and distributors had recalled fire pot liquid fuel gel, fire  pots and their contents continue to represent a danger to consumers. And, the spectacular fallout from a patio ornament that had debuted about three years earlier continues to settle over the business, litigation and regulatory landscapes.

This week the CPSC announced its 2013 operations plan. Within the planning document is a brief mention that the agency would continue its technical review of the safety of fire pots and fuel gels in support of a potential rulemaking. In December 2011, the agency published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but took no further regulatory steps this year. In several speeches, commission Chairman Inez Tennenbaum has noted. “Our rulemaking is exploring the question of whether it is possible to make gel fuel safe for consumers to use...”

Whatever Happened to Company Doe?

For now, Company Doe – the first to launch a court challenge against the publication of a complaint in saferproducts.gov, the publicly accessible database mandated under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, will remain anonymous. A July ruling by a U.S. District Court judge, made public yesterday, maintains the seal on any records that identify the company, the product or the facts of the dispute.

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