Mystery Company’s Lawsuit Hurt Consumer Safety

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and its searchable database——are part of a lawsuit in which a mystery company is trying to keep a <"">complaint against it secret from consumers. Consumer advocates argue that the move flies in the face of the database’s purpose.

The CPSC database was created to provide information on thousands of consumer products and is meant to help consumers learn about products without having to wait during the lengthy process involved for a product recall to take effect. We have often written about the flaws in the process for how dangerous consumer products are recalled. Quite simply, recalls are only as good as the information provided and the follow-up action taken. If someone in the purchasing chain—consumers, retailers, and resellers—does not receive the appropriate information and cannot act on it, a dangerous or recalled product can end up in a consumer’s possession.

Before the database, the CPSC’s web site enabled consumers to search its recall section for items already recalled for safety concerns; the new database provides information on injury complaints and complaints about possible dangers that are filed with the CPSC by consumers, safety groups, health care professionals, and others. The data could help lead to recalls, is viewable by consumers prior to action taken to issue a recall, and enables the agency to look at trends and targets.

The mystery company is working to keep consumers out of this loop by suing the CPSC, hoping that the lawsuit will stop the agency from releasing information about a complaint that its product allegedly injured a child. The mystery company also sought to have the court documents sealed, filing a request in Maryland federal court last month, said MSNBC. “This company going to great lengths to keep its name secret,” said Scott Michelman, staff attorney at Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy organization. On October 31, Public Citizen, The Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union filed an objection with the U.S. District Court in Maryland asking that the seal request be denied, said MSNBC.

Consumer advocates, outraged at the mystery lawsuit, argue that it impedes the notion of publicly accessible government complaint information. As expected, industry has never been in favor of such public information and some government consumer complaint databases do not release raw data to the public over concerns that consumers can file inaccurate reports that would cause harm to a company. But, industry does have recourse. Once a complaint is posted to the database, the agency must advise the manufacturer, which then has 10 days to respond.

Consumers have a right to be concerned. Agencies are notorious for dragging through the complaint process before releasing critical information to the buying public. For instance, said MSNBC, Public Citizen’s report, “Hazardous Wait,” alleged that it took government officials, on average, over 200 days to issue a recall following consumer complaints.

“If this company is allowed to keep a report of a potentially hazardous product out, it would effectively undermine a tool that Congress ordered created to protect consumers,” said Michelman, reported MSNBC. “If important product safety information is not provided to consumers, they might be subjecting themselves to grave danger, or even death, by buying and using a product about which serious hazards were known and documented, but not told to consumers,” he added.

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