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.
According to the May 11 settlement agreement, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission rapped Office Depot for violating the Consumer Product Safety Act by years-long lags between when it knew it had a problem with the chairs and when it notified the CPSC and launched a recall. In addition to the civil penalty, Office Depot had to agree to institute the industry-reviled internal compliance program, complete with formal policies, confidential reporting mechanisms, employee training programs, and records retention rules.
Office Depot neither admitted nor denied the charges, but commission Chairman Elliot F. Kaye made it clear that the CPSC believed its case was strong enough.
“When a company has received information about nearly 200 incident reports and more than 35 injuries yet fails to report to CPSC as required by law, as Office Depot did, there must be accountability,” he said in a statement. “Office Depot failed to report serious incidents to CPSC immediately, as the law clearly requires. More importantly, Office Depot failed to take responsibility and care for the safety of their customers.”
In October 2009, Raynor Marketing recalled 150,000 Quantum Realspace PRO 9000 Series Mid-Back Multifunction Mesh Chair and Multifunction Mesh Chair with Headrest, which retailed at $350. Manufactured by a Chinese company, Comfort Office Furniture, and sold exclusively through Office Depot, the chairs officially fell apart when the bolts attaching the seatback on the recalled chairs loosened and detached. But, according to the settlement, Office Depot first learned about a seat back failure in 2007. It also knew that the manufacturer had instituted design changes in 2008 and 2009, but continued to field injury and incident reports. By the time of the recall, there were 13 injuries and 33 complaints of seat detachments.
The Gibson chair case was a lot more egregious. From 2003 to 2012, Office Depot was the exclusive seller of 1.4 million units, manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, and imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company. The retailer began getting complaints in 2005 about a bad weld which caused the chair to break. By the time the CPSC caught up with the case, Office Depot had racked up 153 incidents and 25 injury reports. It only came clean after the Commission staff opened an investigation in December 2012. Office Depot didn’t launch a recall until May 2014.
From Falls to Fines
The Safety Record Blog cannot help but note that Office Depot would not be the star of today’s CPSC press release, without some outside help.
The first to sound the alarm was a Florida blogger named Jessica Clackum, who in late 2006, suffered a fall when her 14-month-old Swinton Avenue Trading Company chair collapsed, after the weld at the base of the chair failed. Clackum had contacted Office Depot looking for restitution, but the managers shrugged. She tracked down the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, but the entity turned out little more than a Florida address with no means for redress. She poured her outrage into a blog that attracted literally hundreds of complaints. In April 2009, an Office Deport Senior Customer Relations Manager named Casey Ahlbum even posted a response solemnly reciting the company pledge: “At Office Depot Taking Care of Business is the unwavering commitment that we make to our customers, providing unprecedented value, selection, quality and service,” he wrote.
In March 2010, fellow victim Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas routed her complaint more directly. In March 2010, Losey broke her hip in a fall from a Gibson Leather Office, an injury that required a hip replacement. Losey’s attorney Paula Wyatt determined that the Gibson had the same design and product registration number as Office Depot’s Biella Office Chair, also with a bad weld, also manufactured by the Wonderful Year furniture company, also imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, and also sold exclusively by Office Depot. But in April 2012, Swinton recalled 307,000 Biella chairs, after 11 reports of the breaking chairs, and injuries. In October 2012, Wyatt alerted the CPSC to these stunning coincidences.
In November 2012, The Safety Record Blog threw a little gasoline on the fire by publicizing Wyatt’s effort to get the Commission’s attention; in December the CPSC launched an investigation; 18 months later Office Depot announced a recall. And, if you’ve gotten this far in the story, you know what happened next. (You can read our fine coverage at: Office Depot Declines to Launch Recall for a Chair that Launches Occupants Backwards; CPSC Investigates Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget; and Office Chair From Hell Finally Recalled)
“I’m not surprised at how much time it took, but I’m surprised that they are being fined,” Clackum said. “We have heard about some companies investigated, found guilty and fined, but more often than not it’s swept under the rug and there are no consequences. I feel like the consumer has just won a major victory and it’s not just about a chair. It’s about the fact that consumers have rights and it sends a warning to other companies you can’t get away with this.”
The Commission approved the settlement on Friday on a 3-2 vote on party lines. In a statement explaining his “no” vote, Republican-appointed Commissioner Joseph P. Mohorovic conceded that Office Depot was “woefully late” in reporting and deserved a penalty. But he protested the amount of the fine and how it was determined. The Office Depot case, in his view, didn’t fit the penalty factors criteria established by a 2010 rule — the victims weren’t among the vulnerable populations of elderly or children, there weren’t enough injuries relative to the number of units sold, and the injuries weren’t serious enough:
“Last October, we secured a record $4.3 million settlement from a company for failing to report minibikes that were catching on fire, causing severe burns to at least one child,” he stated. “That we would settle on a penalty anywhere near that for failing to report desk chairs that rarely broke, more rarely risked injury, and very rarely risked serious injury indicates that there is little coherence in our approach to penalties, much less any that an outsider could divine from our settlements. We owe it to everyone involved – companies, consumers, and our own staff – to do better.”
Kaye, however, made it clear that a $3.4 million penalty is more a floor than ceiling.
“While this well-deserved civil penalty is not even close to the level Congress authorized and expected when enacting the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, I have put violators on notice that we will seek much higher penalties, as appropriate,” he said.
By the by, the commission is still getting complaints about the Quantum chair – about 18 post-recall, and consumers are reporting pretty clearly that the real problem isn’t loose bolts, it’s bolts made of soft metal that suffer fatigue and shear clean off. Here’s the most recent, lodged in April of this year:
A chair broke causing injury to myself and I Googled for it and found out it had been recalled which was news to me. Reading the recall notice, it says that "bolts attaching the seatback on the recalled chairs can loosen and detach, posing a fall and injury hazard to consumers". This misstates the problem entirely. The real problem is not that bolts loosen and detach, the problem is that the bolts fail under tension load. That means that tightening them may make the problem MORE likely to occur and one may think that tight bolts would mean that they are safe. The bolts supplied in the seat back attachment are made from pot metal and not hardened steel. The failure mode occurred with bolts fully tight. The recall notice must state that the problem is that the bolts are not strong enough for the task and NOT say that the bolts may come loose. A thinking person may be mislead to believe that he is safe if the bolts are tight and this is not the case. Please have them change this language and keep them from misstating the facts. I have a neck injury as the result of two snapped bolts causing a fall against a filing cabinet.
Maybe, as Office Depot is getting together its compliance plan, it can re-notify the unsuspecting owners of its Quantum chairs that they are eligible for a refund – and properly describe the defect while they are at it.