Bassinet Deaths and CPSC’s New Power

Last month, Congress passed and the President signed major legislation strengthening the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Washington Post’s Annys Shin described it this way:

The measure … represents the most significant expansion of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) since it was created in 1973. It also marks a fundamental shift in the federal government’s approach to protecting consumers from dangerous products: transforming a reactive stance to a preventive one by dealing with hazards before goods reach the marketplace, including products manufactured overseas.

And just last week, the agency’s new powers proved essential for protecting children from defective bassinets that strangled two infants.

Shin reports that Simplicity’s “close-sleeper/bedside sleeper” bassinet had already killed one infant: a four-month old girl from Noel, Missouri who died nearly a year ago. At that point, the CPSC did not announce a recall. In a separate article, Shin notes that the CPSC can be in a difficult position when trying to get a company to recall dangerous products, because if a recall puts the company out of business, consumers then have no remedy. At the time when that death occurred, the CPSC was also operating under the old rules, which made it difficult for the agency to act without the manufacturer’s cooperation.

In Simplicity’s case, it had already had to recall two models of cribs in 2005, and then in 2007 it announced a recall of one million cribs with a defective drop side rail. That recall, the largest ever in U.S. history, may have been prompted by a Chicago Tribune story on the cribs (part of the paper’s Pulitzer-winning investigative series Kids at Risk). In any case, the financial strain of the recall contributed to Simplicity’s decision to sell its assets to SFCA, and affiliate of a Bethesda private-equity fund.

That asset sale became an issue after a 6-month-old girl was strangled in the bassinet’s bars on August 21.

The CPSC said it issued the warning and turned to retailers to pull the bassinets because SFCA, the firm that bought Simplicity’s assets in April, refused to cooperate and issue a recall.

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While the CPSC has the authority to mandate recalls, doing so takes time and as a result almost all recalls are voluntary.

Rick Locker, an attorney for SFCA, said the company is not responsible for products made and distributed by Simplicity, which is no longer operating, and that SFCA has fully cooperated with the CPSC. Because SFCA bought just Simplicity’s assets, SFCA didn’t take on legal responsibility for the products.

Rather than issuing a recall, CPSC has put out a warning and directed retailers to pull the bassinets and issue refunds to customers who bought them.

“The agency didn’t hesitate to use its new authority in this case, and it will not be shy about using this new tool to warn the public in the future when the health and safety of the public require this kind of immediate notice,” CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. 

If the CPSC had been willing and able to act forcefully after the first death related to this bassinet, the 6-month-old girl from Shawnee, Kansas might still be alive. Now that it has wielded its new powers and is working to get the bassinets off of shelves and out of homes, it may prevent many more tragedies. Congress and the President were right to give CPSC more strength – now let’s see if it will do the same with other agencies, and save even more lives.