"Doe" Wins Challenge to CPSC Database

Readers may recall we have posted before about an unnamed company that had filed a suit, under seal, to challenge aspects of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new public database. The federal district court found for the company earlier this week, ruling that the agency's attempt to publish an incident report on the database about the company's product was arbitrary and capricious, and an abuse of discretion. See Company Doe v. Tenenbaum, No. 8:11-cv-02958 (D. Md.10/9/12).

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the creation of a consumer product safety information database, and from the beginning, there was controversy about the absence of an adequate process for addressing false and inaccurate reports that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains; the need to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports; the importance of not putting the governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified; and the absence of a sufficient time period allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.

Much of the opinion is redacted, but the suit related to material inaccuracies with respect to a report of alleged injury that found its way into the database. The company protested inclusion of the report, and presented evidence regarding the alleged injury and alleged risk of harm. The CPSC apparently redacted the report twice in an attempt to make it not materially inaccurate. Plaintiff then sued, saying the issues had not been fixed, and later used results of the CPSC's ongoing investigation of the product to renew its objections.  Eventually, the CPSC rejected the company's final objection to the many-times redacted report.

The court cannot substitute its judgment for the agency's but can overturn arbitrary and capricious agency actions.  The court found that the publication decision was an abuse of discretion, because it violated the requirement that the harm "relate to" the use of the product, and would violate the prohibition of publication of materially inaccurate information.  Related to was correlated with associated with or connected with, and the CPSC initial agreements to redact much of the report as inaccurate undercut the later argument that a sufficient "relation to" had been demonstrated to let the final version be published. And mere speculation about a causal link was not sufficient evidence of an actual connection. Similarly a theoretical possibility or mere mathematical possibility was not proof of a sufficient relationship.

On the second prong, the court attempted to put itself in the shoes of the average consumer, and to use inferential reasoning to conclude the report was materially inaccurate and misleading. Interestingly, the court found that the CPSC standard disclaimer that it does not guarantee the accuracy of outside submitted reports, this was "boilerplate" that would not be of interest to the average consumer.

Finally, the court rejected the CPSC's "doomsday" arguments about the impact of the case on the database. The regulations expressly permit a challenge to materially misleading reports, and the court referenced a 2011 GAO report on the evealuation of reports, so a finding that a report is indeed inaccurate would not bring the "apocalypse."  Nonetheless, the ruling appears to represent a clear victory for consumer product manufacturers who are worried about inaccurate consumer complaints.  The decision does not strike at the idea of the database itself as much as it may encourage the CPSC to take a closer look at any reports that a manufacturer challenges as materially inaccurate or misleading.

CPSC Commissioners Testify At Hearing Regarding Database

Issues about the product complaint database set up by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission bubbled over again last week.  We have posted on the topic before.

The CPSC-operated database allows consumers, government agencies, and others to submit reports of alleged injury or death allegedly caused by a product. Since the beginning of the database notion, there have been serious concerns about the accuracy and confidentiality of reports of alleged injury submitted and conveyed back to the public in the database. There has always been an apparent lack of attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that some plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.  Obviously, false or inaccurate information does not serve the interests of consumers. And CPSC allows reports by parties who are more likely to have an agenda that goes beyond merely advising CPSC of an incident. The possibility that someone might attempt to seed the database with inaccurate or misleading information to provide ostensible support for lawsuits is a real concern for many observers.

As we noted, an anonymous company sued the CPSC last Fall over an apparently false report in the database.

Last week, Commissioner Anne Northup testified before a Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing on “Oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” She addressed generally the issues with CPSC regulatory approaches. Commissioner Nord also testified, and she has reported that many of the complaints on the database were filed by law firms.

Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., noted that the public database remains a source of controversy. Manufacturers continue to express their concern that most of the complaints are not vetted by the CPSC before they are made public, "opening the door to all kinds of mischief, whether to fuel law suits or to try and ruin a competitor’s brand."

Video of the hearing here.

Company "Doe" Files Suit Challenging the CPSC Database

Multiple reports indicate that an unnamed company filed a suit last week, under seal, to challenge aspects of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new public database.

Readers may recall that the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the creation of a consumer product safety information database, and from the beginning, there was controversy about the absence of an adequate process for addressing false and inaccurate reports that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains; the need to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports; the importance of not putting the governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified; and the absence of a sufficient time period allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.

The suit was reportedly filed in federal court in Maryland, and relates to material inaccuracies with respect to a report of alleged injury that found its way into the database.  The suit apparently asks that the CPSC be enjoined from keeping the complaint about one of the company's products in the public database.

Almost anyone can file a “report of harm,” including consumers; government agencies; health care professionals; child service providers; and public safety entities. Consumers could include not just the purchaser of the product but their personal injury attorney, with their own agendas.

Manufacturers have only a limited opportunity to review and dispute information in incident reports before they are published on-line in the CPSC database. Manufacturers have limited control over what information can be removed or amended once posted. The two dissenting votes at the time the CPSC commissioners approved the database made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the final rule so as to give manufacturers more time to comment on or respond to the inaccuracy of postings before they are published to the database and to the public.

The database is accompanied by a weak disclaimer stipulating that CPSC has not verified the accuracy of any report. Observers continue to worry that the agency has not paid sufficient attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the database found that of 1,800  published reports, manufacturers noted that 160, nearly 10%, had materially inaccurate information.

 

House Committee Votes To End Funding for CPSC Database

The House Appropriations Committee voted last week (tally 27–21) to send a funding bill to the House floor that would cut off funds from being used for the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new consumer database.

Readers may recall that the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the creation of a consumer product safety information database, and from the beginning, there was controversy about the absence of a process for addressing false and inaccurate reports that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains; the need to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports; the importance of  not putting the governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified; and the absence of a sufficient time period allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.

As we have posted, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission gave final approval late last year to the new consumer product safety database, overriding very real concerns about who should be permitted to submit incident reports and how they will be verified as accurate. CPSC commissioners split along party lines in the 3-2 vote, which came after a final discussion of whether the regulation would simply give certain interest groups a new forum to attack product makers and plaintiff lawyers a new tool, giving rise to lawsuits based on a rumor repeated through the echo chamber of the Internet.

Manufacturers have limited control over what information can be removed or amended once posted. The two dissenting votes made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the final rule so as to give manufacturers more time to comment on or respond to the accuracy of postings before they are published to the database and to the public.

The database is accompanied by a weak disclaimer stipulating that CPSC has not verified the accuracy of any report. Observes worry that the agency has not paid sufficient attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.

The bill just passed out of committee would cut CPSC's overall budget by about $3.5 million—approximately the same amount needed for the database—from FY 2011 levels, and provides that  no funds may be used to carry out any of the database activities.  It appears the bill will be taken up on the House floor in July. 

While consumer groups have opposed the funding cut-off, the majority on the committee agreed with the concern about the risks of unverifiable and inaccurate consumer comments that may be submitted. In the meantime, a 2011 continuing resolution requires the GAO to conduct an analysis of the database.

 

 

CPSC General Counsel Speaks at DRI

I am attending the DRI Product Liability Conference in New Orleans this week (as I know a number of readers are). Your humble blogger serves as Chair of the Mass Torts and Class Action sub-committee.

At the keynote address, Cheryl Falvey, Esq., General Counsel of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, spoke about an issue we have posted on before, the new incident report database.
With the usual disclaimer that she was not speaking for the CPSC officially, she shared a number of personal insights.

The new database went on line last month, and the first consumer reports were posted last week. It can be viewed through the Commission site with a link to SaferProducts.gov. There is a search function for products or manufacturers names, and it lists any recalls and reports, which can be filtered by date.

She indicated that, like Congress and the bar, the Commission is extremely divided on the new database. She stressed that, per the statutory requirement, there is a disclaimer on the site that: CPSC does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of the Publicly Available Consumer Product Safety Information Database on SaferProducts.gov, particularly with respect to information submitted by people outside of CPSC. She admitted, however, that some lawyers may well seek to use the database to argue manufacturers were on notice of something regarding the product.

She noted that anonymous reports to the CPSC are not automatically published, but of course as to the public, every report on the website appears anonymous.

The CPSC believes it is mandated to publish reports of risks of harm as well as actual harm.

The Commission, she says, investigates only about 10% of the reports received; they do not have the budget and resources to investigate every report, let alone investigate reports before they are published. The CPSC is thus "not adjudicating" the product complaints, just posting them.
 

House Hearing on Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act

The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, chaired by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), held a hearing last week to examine the unintended consequences of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 on American job creators, including small businesses. The purpose of this oversight hearing was to develop an understanding of the problems created by CPSIA, including the practical impediments to implementation; the impact of CPSIA on children’s safety; the impact on American jobs and businesses of all sizes; and practical ways to amend the law without endangering children’s health.

Two panels of witnesses testified before the Subcommittee. On the first were Honorable Inez Tenenbaum, Chairman, Consumer Product Safety Commission; and Honorable Anne Northup, Commissioner, Consumer Product Safety Commission.   The second panel included a mix of child safety advocates and representatives of small business industries.

The Chair noted that as a former small business owner, she recognized how unnecessary regulations – even well intentioned ones – can destroy lives.  Rick Woldenberg, the operator of Learning Resources, Inc., a small business making educational products and educational toys, testified on the many difficulties associated with the new, burdensome regulatory requirements. His company, Learning Resources, Inc., has recalled a grand total of 130 pieces in a single recall since its founding in June 1984, showing management of safety risks that was highly effective long before the government intervened in the safety processes.

CPSC Commissioner Northup testified on the exorbitant costs to small businesses, stating that in  March 2009, Commission staff reported that the economic costs associated with the CPSIA would be in the billions of dollars. Small businesses without the market clout to demand that suppliers provide compliant materials have been hit the hardest. Many report that the new compliance and testing costs have caused them to cut jobs, reduce product lines, leave the children’s market completely, or close.

CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup also focused on a key aspect of the new reporting database, observing that the Commission's database rule all but guarantees that the database will be flooded with inaccurate reports of harm, and thus it will be less useful for commission staff in determining hazard patterns than are the current, internal databases. She suggested that the Congress delay the launch of the database until new CPSC regulations can ensure that reports of harm contain sufficient information to permit verification, and the agency has an effective procedure in place to resolve a claim of material inaccuracy before a report is posted on the database.

She noted that the the Majority on the CPSC has expanded the list of database submitters to such an extent that virtually anyone can submit reports of harm—thereby rendering meaningless the statutory language listing permitted submitters. A database full of inaccurate reports from individuals who have second or third-hand information is not remotely helpful to consumers to determine which consumer product they should purchase.  Soliciting information from sources seeking to promote an agenda unrelated to simply sharing first-hand information invites dishonest, agenda-driven use of the database.  Trial lawyers, unscrupulous competitors, advocacy groups and other nongovernmental organizations and trade associations serve their own agendas and lack an incentive to prioritize accuracy in their reports of harm.  In particular, she testified, plaintiff trial lawyers with self-serving motives will use the Commission’s database to look for potential trends and patterns of hazards. Under the current database rule, this same group could also submit to the database false and unverifiable reports to fuel a lawsuit.


 

CPSC to Hold Webinars on New Product Safety Database

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding two Web conferences to demonstrate to interested stakeholders various aspects of its new (and still controversial) consumer product safety information database.  The conferences will focus on the incident reporting form, industry registration and comment features, and the search function of the publicly available part of the database.

The first Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today, January 11, 2011, and the second Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 20th. The first Web conference will focus on the incident form that the public will use to file a report of harm and the search function of the database. The Web conference is intended to inform all interested stakeholders of the information required on the form to be used to report an incident, in addition to an explanation of the public search function of the Database.  The second Web conference will focus on the industry registration and comment features, the process for reporting incidents, and the public search component of the database.  It will address how to access and use the new business portal, and how to register an account on the business portal, which is designed to facilitate more efficient electronic notice, review, and comment on reports of harm before they are published in the database.  The database is set to go live March 11 through the CPSC's website.

As we have noted, the database raises a number of significant issues for our readers, as the CPSC will not be able to guarantee the accuracy of reports before it publishes them on the database, important confidentiality concerns may be compromised, and the data appears vulnerable to trolling and misuse by plaintiff lawyers.  Reports of harm will be published in the database 10 business days after the company has been provided notice of the report of harm. The CPSC has acknowledged that it will not be able to independently verify the accuracy of the information in the reports in that time, so  manufacturers will need to attempt to ask the CPSC to remove “materially inaccurate information” and “confidential information” in the report before it is published, or file comments about the report of harm to be published along with the report in the database.  As a practical matter, it may be difficult for a company to fully investigate the allegations in the report in that time frame. Moreover, any such investigation will likely not include an interview of the person who filed the report, because the person filing the report can choose to not release his or her name.

Reports may be filed not only by consumers but by health care workers, attorneys, and many others. Plaintiffs' lawyers have an unhealthy incentive to seed the database with self serving reports, and, at the least, may search the database looking for products to go after.

Again, companies should register with the CPSC so that they can receive the most timely notice of a report filed about their products.  It may make sense to consider developing an SOP for reviewing and following up on reports in the database, including designation of a lead reviewer or team to follow through. This SOP may include a plan for quickly preparing the appropriate documentation that the company's products are in fact reasonably safe, and for dealing with any adverse PR.  


 

CPSC Approves Product Safety Database Rule

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last week gave final approval to the controversial
new consumer product safety database, overriding very real concerns about who should be permitted to submit incident reports and how they will be verified as accurate. Readers may know that Section 212 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (‘‘CPSIA’’) amended the Consumer Product Safety Act (‘‘CPSA’’) to require the Commission to establish and maintain a publicly available, searchable database on the safety of consumer products, and other products or substances regulated by the Commission.

CPSC commissioners split along party lines in the 3-2 vote, which came after  a final discussion of whether the regulation would simply give certain interest groups a new forum to attack product makers and plaintiff lawyers a new tool, giving rise to lawsuits based on a rumor repeated through the echo chamber of the Internet.

The rule will give consumers access to reports of alleged product-related safety incidents via a new publicly accessible database.  Consumers, government agencies, and various public health and safety interest groups will be able to post largely self-verified reports related to the safety of any product regulated by the CPSC.

Manufacturers will have limited control over what information can be removed or amended once posted.  The two dissenting votes made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the final rule so as to give manufacturers more time to comment on or respond to the accuracy of postings before they are published to the database and to the public. 

The database will be accompanied by a weak disclaimer stipulating that CPSC has not verified the accuracy of any report.  But the Democratic commissioners rejected any system by which the CPSC could investigate obviously questionable claims and find out the origin of such reports before allowing the public to see and use them.   We posted about these very issues last Spring, and argued that the CPSC had not fully addressed them.  It still seems that insufficient attention has been paid by the majority commissioners to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.

Accordingly, a product seller may only make a comment in response to the report of harm, which may be published; claim the report of harm contains confidential business information, triggering a CPSC review of the claim; and/or claim the report of harm contains materially inaccurate information (e.g., that it is not the manufacturer or private labeler of the product), triggering a CPSC review of the claim. Materially inaccurate information is narrowly defined to include information that is false or misleading and relates to a matter which is so substantial and important as to affect a reasonable consumer’s decision making about the product. 

CPSC is expected to have the database go live at www.saferproducts.gov in March, 2011. In the meantime, the Commission plans to start outreach on business portal registration and features; conduct workshops with manufacturers and private labelers; offer training webinars; and finalize the new incident report form.

CPSC Shares Public Comments on Product Database

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is in the process of reviewing comments submitted on the impending consumer product safety information database. The agency has posted the comments received.

No surprise, those consumer-oriented interest groups in favor of a database generally praise what CPSC is proposing to do, and industry groups reiterate concerns they have about the implementation of the database concept.

As we have posted before, even back to the time Congress was considering this provision, there remain concerns about the accuracy and confidentiality of reports of alleged injury submitted and conveyed back tot he public in the database;  and the CPSC remains vague about how it will provide "due process" for product sellers who could find the database being used against them even when it contains erroneous, duplicate, or confidential data.  for manufacturers and private labelers.  There seems scant attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.


Organizations such as  the National Association of Manufacturers noted that false or inaccurate information does not serve the interests of consumers. Congress knew that counterfeit products are too common in the marketplace and may be confused with real brand name products.  Manufacturers and private labelers of products have a legitimate interest in protecting their brands from inaccurate, defamatory, and intentionally false statements and in protecting trade secret and confidential commercial information.  Accordingly, a request for confidential treatment “is not a matter that should be left to the discretion of a CPSC staffer,” NAM said.

Industry groups also worried about the CPSC's unduly broadening the list of people who can submit a report to the database. Broadening the list of reporting parties does not serve the Congressional interest in providing accurate information to consumers about reports of harm. It is obvious why parties included in CPSC's broad proposed listing of "others" may not be reliable reporters of an incident. CPSC has largely added parties who are more likely to have an agenda that goes beyond merely advising CPSC of an incident. The possibility that someone might attempt to seed the database with inaccurate or misleading information to provide ostensible support for lawsuits is a real concern. 

So far, the Commission has not ensured that the CPSC will deal with accuracy challenges in a timely manner. Conceivably, busy CPSC staff might take weeks, months, or even years to determine whether information that is posted on the database is materially inaccurate.  CPSC has also set up a catch-22 procedure for handling such challenges. CPSC has asked firms who wish "expedited" treatment to submit no more than five pages including attachments to show a problem. However, CPSC has simultaneously set a standard of  "significant evidence" to support claims that information is materially inaccurate.  To provide sufficient evidence to support a challenge, a manufacturer may need to provide more than 5 pages of information; however, if they do so,  CPSC will publish first, and resolve the challenge at some indefinite time in the future.

These parts of the proposal likely will not withstand judicial scrutiny, nor should they have any credibility with the public.

 

CPSC Chair Offers Comments on Database

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum testified last week at a  hearing before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.  She noted that her agency was preparing to staff up for 2011 in anticipation of greater enforcement efforts under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  

Tenenbaum was seeking a slight increase in CPSC's approximately $118 million funding. She testified that the budget will allow CPSC to hire 46 new full-time employees, bringing total staffing staffing levels more than 1.5 times the complement as recently as in 2008.  Tenenbaum also noted that the CPSC would work closely with small businesses to ensure that CPSIA third-party verification requirements do not become a costly burden, by dedicating a business ombudsman to address concerns.

She testified that the CPSC is currently in the process of building the Consumer Product Safety Risk Management System, a Web-based database that is supposed to change the way CPSC collects, analyzes and deploys data about regulated products. She reiterated that the system is scheduled to be up and running by March 11, 2011.

We have posted about this database before.  And we had the opportunity to hear the Chair speak on the issue at the recent DRI Products Liability Annual Meeting.  She noted she understand the level of concern about the database.  The CPSC has issued a proposed notice of rulemaking on the database, and the recent Open Commission Briefing/Meeting on Public Database - Notice of Proposed Rules-making is available. To concerns from the manufacturing community about whether the database might allow for unconfirmed reports about their products, she noted that the CPSC does not want to publish inaccurate or confidential information. Every report of harm that is submitted will be reviewed by a member of the agency’s staff and, further, every report that identifies a manufacturer will be sent to that manufacturer, generally within 5 business days. She stressed the creation of a non-public manufacturer portal to speed receipt of and replies to these reports. She also stated that the agency will protect proprietary and confidential information from the companies.

While those goals are worthy, CPSC needs to develop a rigorous and timely process for addressing false and inaccurate reports-- those that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains. The commission needs to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports. CPSC also needs to think about specific disclaimers it should make with regard to the accuracy of the information contained in the public database, and not put any governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified. A sufficient time period should also be allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.

Update on CPSC Database Issues

We have posted before about one of the more controversial aspects of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the to-be-created publicly accessible database of product safety information.

The CPSIA mandates that the database be completed by March, 2011. The agency views its task as the creation of a public portal and a publicly accessible, searchable database of consumer product incident reports. Through the public portal, consumers will theoretically be able to report potential product safety hazards to CPSC in ways that are supposed to improve the quality, value, and accuracy of the data collected. Manufacturers will be able to investigate and respond to product hazard reports more quickly, and to share information with both CPSC investigators and with the public through the public database. And consumers are supposed to be able to use the public portal and database to find more information about hazards in order to keep their families safe.

Unless done very carefully, the database will be of little use to the average consumer, but subject to potential mischief in the hands of plaintiff lawyers.

Since last Fall, the CPSC has held various meetings and a two-day public workshop to gather stakeholder input on the new database. A number of affected groups have submitted comments on the implementation of the new product safety database, including the Soap and Detergent Association.  A common theme for the comments is the need for the CPSC to focus on verifying and ensuring the accuracy of safety incident reports submitted to the commission. Factual accuracy and veracity are two fundamental elements underpinning a credible incident database. 

CPSC needs to develop a process for addressing false and inaccurate reports that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains. The commission needs to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports.  CPSC also needs to think about specific disclaimers it should make with regard to the accuracy of the information contained in the public database, and not put the governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified.  A sufficient time period should also be allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.