Last week, reports emerged of how a U.K.-based manufacturer called Britax avoided recalling a line of dangerous jogging strollers by politically gaming the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Even after countless incidents of product malfunctions that led to serious injuries, these strollers remain on the market, placing families and young children at risk.
The Britax jogging strollers aren’t the only risky product making recent headlines. Intense media pressure has finally led to a recall of Fisher-Price Rock n’ Play Sleepers, a childcare product that has reportedly been tied to more than 30 infant fatalities. Meanwhile, the Britax strollers are still on the market and it is unclear how many other dangerous products have escaped further scrutiny to remain available to consumers along with them.
Without intervention from Congress or some other outside entity, it’s clear that consumers can no longer be sure that the CPSC will protect them from dangerous products. This is in stark contrast to the last 50 years, when the CPSC managed to protect consumers from corporate negligence regardless of the political orientation of the Commissioners.
If we don’t depoliticize the CPSC, the only thing consumers will have to rely on is the civil justice system and safety advocates.
Formed in 1972 through the enactment of the Consumer Safety Act, CPSC is responsible for implementing and enforcing safety standards for a wide-range of consumer goods like household cleaning products, childcare items, tools and clothing. Equipped with a staff of approximately 500 employees and an annual budget of roughly $120 million, the agency also conducts research to identify public safety risks and initiate product recalls in the most serious cases.
The majority of the CPSC’s operations are carried out by career staffers with experience in implementing and enforcing consumer safety regulations. However, the agency is overseen and directed by an executive board consisting of a chairperson and four additional commissioners who are each nominated by the president and approved by the Senate for 7-year terms — and that’s where conflicts of interest can emerge.
While the board is theoretically designed to be bipartisan, with the controlling political party limited to a maximum of three commissioners, it fails to function this way in practice. The CPSC is ultimately beholden to the will of the agency’s chairperson, who is chosen by the incoming President at the beginning of their tenure and can shape the CPSC to align with their party’s broader legislative agenda.
In this case, the president’s appointed chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle, overrode the expertise of longstanding, non-political employees and even other commissioners by allowing Britax’s jogging strollers to remain on the market and available for purchase. Her decision to forego pursuit of a product recall was made in spite of more than 200 consumer reports citing dangerous stroller defects.
Instead, following a significant lobbying campaign by Britax, the company was simply instructed to offer broader educational resources to consumers about proper use. These videos create an illusion of safety and fail to address the real issue here, which is the existence of serious product defects. Moreover, consumers are relying largely on the CPSC and the civil justice system. With the agency’s leadership hampered by political ideology, the civil justice system will play an even greater role in protecting consumers.
The Britax case is indicative of larger problems at the CPSC and it remains to be seen how many other dangerous products have escaped scrutiny. In the months ahead, we can expect civil justice advocates and attorneys to double down on their efforts to protect consumers, but in the long run, policymakers must take the politics out of the CPSC. Otherwise, public health and safety — and trust — will remain unnecessarily at risk.
David Oddo is the president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.