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Stove Recall Highlights Failings of Consumer Product Safety Commission

Feb. 20, 2008

Stove Recall Highlights Failings of Consumer Product Safety Commission

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

Note: This statement was delivered at a telephone press conference.

Welcome. We are holding this press conference today to bring to public attention a major recall that affects nearly 4 million people and involves a common household product – and that is, a stove.

We highlighted this last spring, when we, U.S. PIRG and the Consumer Federation of America detailed the longstanding problem presented by kitchen ranges that tip over, killing and injuring children, parents and grandparents, and urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission to take action. Most stoves sold today are prone to tip over when weight is applied to the oven door. When they are not secured to the wall or floor, they can tip over, crushing, scalding or burning whoever is standing nearby. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, at least 100 people – including the elderly and children – have been killed or injured by stoves that have tipped over.

Now, Sears has settled a class action lawsuit, agreeing to install brackets for people who purchased stoves from Sears between July 2, 2000, and Sept. 18, 2007, and did not have a bracket installed; reimburse people who paid for a bracket to be installed upon receiving their stove; or provide a $50 Sears stove gift card to people who did not have a bracket installed and do not want one.

The suit, which was filed in Illinois, is worth up to $546 million. More details are available at www.searsrangesettlement.com.

This case in important because it highlights the failings of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, both its current lack of will to do its job and the overriding issue of having neither the authority nor the budget to do its job adequately. We have seen this repeatedly over the past year with a number of high-profile recalls of dangerous toys.

Although consumer groups were not involved in the lawsuit we are discussing today, we have been at the forefront of promoting legislation designed to beef up the Consumer Product Safety Commission and enable it to keep harmful products off the shelves and notify consumers of hazardous products in a timely manner.

That didn’t happen with the stoves.

Since the early 1980s, manufacturers of ranges began using lighter-gauge steel to reduce costs, even though they quickly learned that this resulted in a tendency for the lighter-weight appliances to tip over when weight was applied to the oven door.

Despite the fact that industry-standard organizations Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a national, voluntary safety standard in 1991 that calls for sellers to install the anti-tip brackets, retailers rarely install the brackets. While the retailers are aware of the safety hazard, the delivery people they contract with often are not equipped or trained to perform the installation service, and the sales people rarely mention the issue to the buyer. Retailers have resisted paying for installation of the bracket. As a result, most homeowners who purchase the ranges don’t know that the units are not secure and are unaware that the brackets are necessary for stability.

Records show that as early as 1980, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was alerted to the dangers posed by stoves that tip over. The agency continued to receive information about the danger and reports of injuries in subsequent years, yet it did virtually nothing to alert the public, require a recall or issue a mandatory safety standard to prevent this horrible consequence.

Since the settlement in question applies only to stoves sold by Sears, today we are petitioning the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require all other retailers to similarly offer customers the bracket installation. In addition we are petitioning the CPSC to issue a mandatory safety standard and to alert the public to this danger.

I’d like to highlight several other areas where the Consumer Product Safety Act is grossly insufficient.

First, recalls.   There are too many hurdles the CPSC must leap over to conduct a recall.  Unlike any other health and safety regulatory agency, it is required to conduct a trial-type adjudicatory proceeding before the agency can order a recall. This can take many months or even years. It should have only to hold an informal hearing before making a recall decision.

Second, public information. Under Section 6 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, the agency now keeps secret information identifying any manufacturer or business, including consumer complaints, unless it gives the business 30 days notice to file an action in district court to enjoin the commission from releasing it. 

The Senate bill creates a public data base of information submitted by outside parties but excludes any information from manufacturers, including information about lawsuits concerning a defective product. It should include manufacturer information that is not confidential business information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Third, civil penalties.   A maximum penalty of $10 million ($20 million for aggravated circumstances) is insufficient to deter the cover up or failure to recall defective products.  Most other agencies have far higher penalty amounts to assure compliance.

Fourth, imported product safety.   The safety of imported products, which have grown exponentially since the l970s when this law was first enacted, must be assured. Foreign importers must consent to jurisdiction of U.S. courts and inspection by U.S. authorities of any plant, and the CPSC must have hot  botton authority to halt importation of any hazardous or  danger product.

Fifth, streamlined CPSC standard setting. Sections 7 and 9 of the safety act must be changed to eliminate the requirement to rely on voluntary standards and to defer to them instead of issuing federal standards, allowing the agency instead to take them into consideration.

The tip-over stove dangers highlights the need to give the CPSC the authority to truly require product safety and enforce the law. The Senate will consider the legislation in the next week or two on the Senate floor.

Thank you.