With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us, it’s time for that All-American activity—holiday shopping. For almost half of us, holiday shopping involves toys for our youngest loved ones.
If that includes you, be thankful for the civil justice system, and for the lawyers that protect consumer safety. There are a lot of factors we consider when choosing a toy—price, age-appropriateness, the interests of the children we are shopping for. But when we’re toy shopping, we rarely think about toy safety. Forty-five years ago, after all, marked the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission with a mandate to protect us from unsafe products.
But despite the best efforts of the CPSC, not all toys are safe. Every year, consumer advocates like the U.S. Public Interest Research Group issue reports detailing dangerous toys. (This year, you even have to worry about toys spying on you!) Last year, 240,000 people were hurt by toys and the CPSC worked with toy manufacturers on 28 voluntary recalls.
And because these recalls are voluntary, consumers often remain unaware of the dangers.
Under President Donald Trump, even the limited power of a voluntary recall is under attack. President Trump’s proposed budget called for a 17 percent cut to the CPSC—further limiting its effectiveness.
Equally troubling, the President has offered a nominee, Dana Baiocco, who reportedly has represented companies accused of selling dangerous and defective products—including toy manufacturer Mattel when it was facing lawsuits because of lead in its products. Can consumers be sure that she will be looking out for them the next time a company is accused of selling a dangerous product?
With the prospect of the federal government reducing its already inadequate consumer protection activities, the task of defending the public will once again fall on consumers. And their lawyers.
Consumers and the civil justice system have filled the gap created by an ineffective CPSC before. When the CPSC turned a blind eye to a dangerous building set—a magnetic toy that could break, exposing toxic magnets that could be fatal to children who ingested them—lawyers for a family whose young son died after ingesting the magnets stood up to the CPSC and the company. The family’s lawsuit pressured the company to increase its safety measures and led the CPSC to create an industry-wide safety standard for toys with small magnets.
And when a different toy, this one based on a popular crime show, was found to include asbestos-contaminated talcum powder for “fingerprint powder,” it was the civil justice system—not the CPSC—that forced the manufacturer to pull the product from shelves. Consumer groups and their attorneys were rightly concerned about the product’s safety as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that talc that includes asbestos can cause cancer. But the manufacturer refused to recall the product until it was taken to court.
As lawyers, we have a special opportunity to make sure the toys and other products on the store shelves are safe. That’s one more thing to be thankful for this holiday season.
Matt Funk is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.