INSIGHTS On Massachusetts Personal Injury Law

Welcome to the SUGARMAN blog. We'll be sharing our perspectives on the state of the law and current legal issues in Massachusetts personal injury law. Issues relating to medical malpractice, construction site injuries, premises liability, product liability, motor vehicle accidents, insurance, and more will all be reviewed here by our team of lawyers who have prosecuted some of the most complex cases in Massachusetts personal injury law.

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Two Children Die in Hope Chest: A Product Safety Failure for Our Legal System

The tragic death of two young Franklin children who became trapped in a chest highlights the need for greater consumer protection and vigilance. On January 12, 2014, the two youngsters apparently were playing in the family’s “hope chest,” manufactured by Lane Furniture of Virginia, when the chest automatically locked, trapping the children and causing them to suffocate.

The automatic locking mechanism rendered the chest unreasonably dangerous. In 1996, Lane Furniture recalled 12 million chests (Lane and Virginia Maid brand cedar chests manufactured between 1912 and 1987), due to lids that automatically locked when closed. The recall followed reports of the deaths of six children.

In 2001, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (“CPSC”) fined Lane $900,000 for failing to report the entrapment problem in a timely manner, which manufacturers are required to do. The CPSC is the federal agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products. While CPSC has jurisdiction over consumer products generally, historically it has been most active with regard to products hazardous to children. CPSC administers several federal laws directly relating to child safety such as the Child Safety Protection Act (toy safety), Flammable Fabrics Act (standards for children’s sleepwear and mattresses), Poison Prevention Packaging Act (child resistant packaging of hazardous household products and medications), Refrigerator Safety Act (to prevent accidental entrapment of children in discarded refrigerators), and more recently the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act (includes safety requirement to prevent entrapment in drains). In addition, the CPSC has passed numerous regulations relating to the child-safety of various products. Examples include: baby bouncers and walkers, cigarette lighters, cribs and infant cushions, garage door openers, and swimming pool slides. The chest entrapments and recall follows a history of children being killed by entrapment in other consumer products, including refrigerators and car trunks.

Although it is currently unclear as to whether the chest in Franklin was of the model that was subject to the recall, the dangerous mechanism on the subject chest presented the same grave danger. Press reports available to date indicate that the Franklin family had purchased the chest in a used condition 12 years ago. Lane Furniture has reported that chests manufactured after 1987 have new “safety locks.” Although Lane launched several programs in concert with the CPSC, concentrating on lock replacement, there are still an estimated six million chests that need the locks replaced according to Lane’s website. To prevent another tragedy, CPSC urges consumers to check their “Lane” and “Virginia Maid” brand cedar chests. According to the CPSC website, the brand name “Lane” or “Virginia Maid” is located inside the cedar chest. If the lid latches shut without depressing a button on the outside of the chest, the lock needs to be replaced. Contact Lane toll-free at (800) 327-6944 Monday to Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. CT, or access their website to order the free replacement lock. Consumers should have the chest’s serial and style numbers, which are branded on the outside bottom or back of the chest, available when contacting Lane.

The Franklin tragedy speaks to the need for the CPSC to force manufacturers to be more pro-active in publicizing product recalls in a more comprehensive, and ongoing, manner. Effective communication of recalls can save lives.

The length of the list of recalled consumer products, even with the regulatory efforts of the CPSC, demonstrates the necessity of the other mechanism promoting consumer product safety: product liability law. When, despite the CPSC regulation, a consumer product causes personal injury to a child or adult, a product liability claim against the manufacturer can provide compensation for the victim, public exposure of the product’s defects, and can contribute to the safety of the product going forward either through redesign or removal from the market. Assuming that the subject chest was unreasonably dangerous and that feasible alternatives to its design existed at the time of its manufacture, the manufacturer may be held liable for its breach of warranty, negligence and gross negligence in causing the death of the children under Massachusetts law.

As the Franklin tragedy demonstrates, manufacturers’ efforts at communicating recalls often do not reach the consumers who have purchased a recalled product. For consumers looking for ways to learn about product recalls, here are some suggestions:

Recalls.gov – lists the most recent product safety recalls for six participating government agencies, with links to the government sites for specific product information;

FDA, NHTSA, and CPSC each have email subscription lists that you can join that will email you recall alerts;

Consumer Watch has a twice per month Children’s Product Recall newsletter, which includes recall alerts, that you can subscribe to for free;

Safe Products.gov is a CPSC site where you can report a dangerous product yourself and read about other reported problems, even for products that have not been recalled;

• The CPSC website is also an excellent resource for product recall information and other consumer safety news.