Friday, February 25, 2011

CPSIA - ICPHSO Mock Civil Penalty Jury Exercise

There has been only ONE court decision relating to late reporting penalties, and it was a resounding victory for the government. A juice company lost a case in California in federal court. Since there is no little law on the subject, the presenters today assert that there is no way to predict how a future case might be decided.

The panel today:
  • Eric Rubel, Arnold & Porter LLP
  • Cheryl Falvey, GC of CPSC
  • Sean Laane, Arnold & Porter LLP
  • Richard Levie, retired Judge and current arbitrator/mediator
  • Mary Murphy, Asst GC, Div. of Compliance, CPSC

The panel presentation was designed as a mock trial. Both sides of the case will be presented, and you can clearly how both sides will portray this incident and both are compelling.

First to present was Mary Murphy on behalf of the government. She emphasized the facts of the injury to the child. This is clearly how you and your company will be made to look worst. This is no surprise and is standard fare for a plaintiff in a lawsuit. She likewise related the prior reporting of the risk or incidents (to the company and to the CPSC) that suggested the hazard.

Needless to say, this is the reason that consumer groups want the database. They want to create a body of evidence to coerce product changes ahead of injuries. Of course, any responsible company monitors market data (such as consumer reports) to do just that sort of thing. The database, however, is fodder for lawsuits and facilitates this kind argument. The likely impact is that the cases of plaintiffs will be strengthened and awards will grow.

Shall we take a trip down memory lane and remind ourselves of the principal source of funding for the consumer groups active in children's product safety? Are you surprised to know that it is trial lawyers and the plaintiffs bar?

Back to the presentation of Ms. Murphy. She's doing a good job making the manufacturer look bad, almost venal. She links the injury back to a failure to report. This is because of the asserted critical role of the CPSC in keeping America safe. She poses the question "would this injury have occurred but for the failure to report?" She argues that ten reports from consumers (of the hazard, loose beads on a high chair, not injuries) created an obligation to report based on a substantial risk of injury or death. She likewise anticipates that the defense will be that the manufacturer had no duty to report. She says that the late reporting only took place when the manufacturer's back was "up against the wall". Again, Murphy emphasizes her story about the motivation or mental state of the company.

More evidence used against the company included multiple written reports by the CPSC to them of consumer complaints. Ms. Murphy is painting a clear picture of a company that is not acting on a known safety issue. She indicates that the company ignored this information based on poor advice, despite internal admissions that "this was an accident waiting to happen".

You can see that the facts of this hypothetical case opens manufacturers up to bad behavior portrayals. I applaud the effort to make this clear - you need to take this on board. The facts of this case appear extreme and objectionable. Media and political over-reaction to this kind of corporate behavior sent the REST OF US down the river under the CPSIA.

The defense was offered by Sean Laane. He noted the responsible behavior of the company by repeatedly testing the goods using CPSC standards and CPSC-accredited independent labs. Noted that the CPSC tested the product TWICE after reports of incidents from consumers - and the products passed! [Note that any safety system that overly depends on testing will ALWAYS expose a company to risk if it is distracted from or chooses to ignore contrary information from the market. This is a basic flaw in the reasoning of the consumer groups and the folks behind the CPSIA.] He goes on to note that the CPSC can't have it both ways, since it never concluded that action was required based on the incidents it was aware of. After all, the CPSC had several reports and did nothing. Claims the CPSC takes a "gotcha" approach because although it claims "late reporting", it was well-aware of the issue long before the injury - and did nothing.

Laane notes the extensive investment of this company in safety. He questions whether there was a reasonable basis to conclude that there was an unreasonable risk of injury or death. Clearly the CPSC didn't feel it was an unreasonable risk itself! Also notes that you don't have to tell the CPSC about information the agency already possesses. Notes repeatedly that the CPSC's actions or inaction are based on their expertise and fact findings, thus confirming the reasonableness of the company's approach. Notes that companies have no obligation to make products utterly indestructible.

Laane noted that the person inside the company who called the condition "an accident waiting to happen" was not a QC person or responsible manager. Instead, he was a customer service rep, and relayed that message to the QC department for their evaluation. Child who was injured later fully recovered, and the company chose to immediately initiate a Fast Track recall.

An interesting point made by Levie is that the company's awareness of similar issues in similar products can be held against them. If they knew or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN about other recalls or notorious injury incidents reflects on their later decisions or inaction. [I am glad I don't make baby monitors . . . . This is a good lesson on the reality of the problem of "emerging hazards". Note that you are going to be judged not just on what you know, but also on what they assert you SHOULD have known.]

CF: One of the most persuasive arguments made by defendants is a track record of reporting to the CPSC. This shows a commitment to safety and cooperation with the CPSC, demonstrating trust that the CPSC will not recall product everytime.

Levie agreed that this fact pattern will also be persuasive to a judge.

All market participants need to think about this kind of issue and how they might fare if they face a similar dilemma.


halojones-fan said...

I'm sensing a strong "I only see what's right in front of me" kind of attitude from Murhpy. Oh, we've had these reports for years and never acted on them? Well, I don't have them in front of me RIGHT NOW, therefore they're irrelevant!

Rick Woldenberg, Chairman - Learning Resources Inc. said...

I want to clarify because you may have misinterpreted what went on at this session. Ms. Murphy was acting as a litigator making her case. She was NOT expressing the view of the agency. What I wanted to make clear is that this kind of portrayal is what a manufacturer COULD face. The facts can be made to look "bad" in a conflict with the agency. Ms. Murphy did a superb job of demonstrating how this can be done. This is typical of litigation, but in my experience, many manufacturers do not adequately assess this risk. This panel was a useful word to the wise.