Lawsuit renews debate over product safety database

A legal complaint against the Consumer Product Safety Commission's six-month-old product safety database has refocused attention on an online tool that may risk unfairly tarnishing manufacturers' reputations.

The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that an unnamed "Company Doe" filed a motion in a district court in Maryland to block CPSC from posting "baseless allegations" against its product on its bulletin board site.

While SaferProducts.gov was designed to allow consumers to publicize hazardous products, business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers have warned of the site's potential to defame them since it was authorized by the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson has acknowledged that since its launch in March the website has received 383 complaints from companies saying that consumer comments on the site are materially inaccurate, including 204 in which consumers misidentified products' manufacturers. In response to the lawsuit, Wolfson said, "CPSC plans to file a motion with the court to have the case unsealed."

SaferProducts.gov, as of July 7, had attracted 5,464 consumer reports on difficulties with products, according to a Government Accountability Office study released Oct. 11. On average, CPSC each year has collected more than 360,000 National Electronic Injury Surveillance System reports and more than 23,000 manufacturer and retailer reports on product safety concerns, according to its annual accounting. In 2009, it received about 15,000 incident reports from the www.cpsc.gov website and its hot line.

Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, told Government Executive "this lawsuit indicates that various entities will go very far to keep information from the public. The database is very important consumer tool because [previously] consumers were in the dark about product hazards. Sometimes CPSC didn't know about cases or did know but couldn't communicate on it due to a provision in its authorization statute."

The only way the agency could intervene was through product recalls, she said. "So this is a very important tool to provide equilibrium in terms of information to consumers who were disadvantaged," Weintraub added.

She also noted efforts by Republicans in Congress this summer to defund the database.

Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel for Public Citizen, said CPSC is required by law to implement the database and that many in industry "have objected from the very beginning." She said the site has an "array of protections for the industry," more than other comparable federal tools, such as the consumer reporting site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

CPSC displays a disclaimer noting that complaints may not have been verified. The agency is required to forward complaints to the relevant manufacturer, which then has 10 days to weigh in on the accuracy and publish its own comments alongside the original report. "It's ironic," Hines said, "that with so many protections, we have a lawsuit."

The recent GAO report on the database's first months found that of the 5,464 reports received only 38 percent -- or 2,084 -- were deemed to include all the required information for publication and 1,847 of those actually were posted on SaferProducts.gov. Of those, 160 still contained materially inaccurate (false or misleading) information, most of which the agency was able to quickly resolve, GAO said.

Republican-appointed members of CPSC, who largely opposed creation of the database, told GAO auditors they wanted improved protections against publication of incorrect information. In a letter, they wrote that they were "alarmed that GAO found that only slightly more than one-third of all incidents were reported by an individual with firsthand knowledge of the incident." They also warned that many of the reports were evidently based on other parties' reports found on the Internet.

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