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.

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.

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