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.)  

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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Product Safety Takes a Big Leap Forward

Just before Thanksgiving, a majority of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission gave consumers an early holiday present, approving a Final Rule that will establish a publicly accessible consumer product safety complaint database. For the first time since the commission was created, manufacturers will no longer control the flow of information about their products. By spring, consumers will be able to report their own complaints and research others via a web interface.

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The Right Way and the Wrong Way

On the eve of a vote on a Final Rule to establish the new database, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissioners Anne Northup and Nancy Nord, have proposed an alternative to newly mandated consumer product safety database from that recommended by the staff. In a recent blog post entitled, “A Wrong Way and a Right Way – Which Will We Choose?” Commissioner Nord details the specific aspects of the database rule that prompted this Hail Mary pass: who can submit complaints and inaccurate information.

“Congress provided us with a list of those whose complaints should go up on the public database.  We have contorted the plain language Congress used into definitions that have no meaning.  For example, Congress told us to accept complaints from “consumers.”  The majority has determined that since everyone consumes something, we need to accept complaints from everyone—no need for any relationship to the product, harm or incident.  Think plaintiff lawyers trolling for clients or unscrupulous competitors wishing to harm a product’s reputation,” Nord writes.

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