CPSC's public database faces first legal challenge
WASHINGTON—Praised by consumer advocates and denounced by manufacturers, a new federal database for safety complaints about everything from baby gear to household appliances is facing its first legal challenge.
A motion has been filed in federal district court in Maryland by an unnamed manufacturer -- "Company Doe" -- which wants to stop the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing online a complaint about a product the company makes. The filing says there is no factual, scientific or medical evidence to support the complaint, which involves an injury to a child.
The Oct. 17 motion asks a judge to grant the company anonymity for all pleadings, documents and forms related to what it calls "baseless allegations." Revealing the name of the company and the nature of the complaint in court proceedings would essentially be the same as publishing it in the database, the court papers said.
Launched in March and overseen by the commission, SaferProducts.gov is a database where people can file complaints, for public view, of injury or worse from everyday products such as cribs, high chairs, space heaters and power tools. The legal wrangling could have a potentially crippling impact on the database. If the case were allowed to proceed under seal, it could lead to challenges by other manufacturers -- undermining the database by squelching safety complaints from consumers and others in the courts for months or years.
CPSC is preparing for a fight. Agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said the commission will file a motion to have the court documents unsealed.
"So far, there are more than 3,300 incident reports that the public has open access to view in the database," said Wolfson. "Many of these incident reports involve serious cases of deaths and injuries."
The court papers say the safety complaint against Company Doe was not filed by the child or the child's family, but by an unnamed government agency. Baruch Fellner at Gibson Dunn, one of the attorneys representing the company, said he could not comment.
Pretty much anyone can submit a "report of harm" to the SaferProducts.gov database, including a consumer; local, state and federal government agency; medical examiner and health care provider.
They aren't required to have firsthand knowledge of the alleged injury or potential defect that could lead to injury. The reports are reviewed by commission staff to make sure basic information is provided -- name, contact information, product, injury and approximate date, though personal information will be removed before the report hits the database. The manufacturer is informed of the complaint, can respond and has up to 15 days before the report is made public. CPSC says reports that have missing or clearly untrue information won't be published.
The manufacturing community has complained that reports of harm with bogus, missing or inaccurate information could be posted online -- doing irreparable harm to a company's reputation.
A report this month from the Government Accountability Office says more than 5,000 complaints about products were received by the agency as of July 7. Of those, about 1,800 were published online in the database. Consumers, the GAO said, submitted almost all of the reports, 97 percent. It said about one-third of the submitters reported that they were the victim involved in the harm complaint.