CPSC database faces first legal challenge

October 18, 2011

A new consumer complaints database faced its first legal challenge this week when a company tried to block the federal agency that runs it from posting what the firm described as “baseless allegations” against its product.

The database, launched in March by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a Web site where consumers can report and review incidents involving any of the thousands of products that the agency regulates — from candles to refrigerators.

The lawsuit against the CPSC marks the most recent jab at the database by product manufacturers and their allies in Congress since the site was created three years ago as part of a broader product-safety reform measure.

Critics say that any inaccurate information on the site unfairly threatens a company’s profits and misleads consumers. But consumer advocates say the reporting system allows regulators and consumers to more quickly spot and address emerging hazards.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in a federal district court in Maryland, seeks to prevent the CPSC from making public an incident that allegedly harmed a child. In addition, it wants to keep under seal any related documents and the identity of the company, describing it only as “Company Doe,” a maker and seller of consumer products.

“To require the Plaintiff to proceed without the protection of an order sealing the case would in effect render Plaintiff’s injuries impossible to redress,” the lawsuit said.

The complaint was reported to the commission by another federal agency, not the child’s family, raising some privacy concerns, the company said.

The CPSC said it plans to file a motion to have the case unsealed, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates dismissed the company’s effort as a keep-consumers-in-the-dark tactic that industry often uses to avoid public scrutiny, though many said they’re unaware of lawsuits filed against similar federal databases.

“It’s really a straw-man argument that industry erects,” said consumer advocate Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “The primary motive is to keep the complaints from going public to prevent a recall and the strengthening of safety standards that will cost them money.”

The new database — www.saferproducts.gov — is modeled after a 40-year-old system created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that focuses on vehicle and equipment defects, Ditlow said. That database has led to many recalls and upgrading of safety standards. Ditlow said he expects the CPSC database to do the same.

Before the site was launched, consumers were generally unaware of product safety complaints until the product was recalled. Critics of the database, including the commission’s two Republican appointees, say it should stay that way given the potential accuracy problems this kind of reporting system raises. Their earlier effort to strip the database’s funding failed.

But supporters of the Web site say it provides plenty of protections for businesses. By law, complaints must be shared with the company, which has 10 days to respond. Anything materially inaccurate is to be removed from the complaint before it’s made public, and the company can post comments alongside the complaint.

The commission has received 383 material inaccuracy claims from companies as of September, and 204 of them involved a consumer naming the wrong company, a mistake that the agency said can be easily corrected, according to Wolfson.

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog group, found that the commission “has generally been able to identify products and resolve inaccuracy claims,” but could do more to collect model or serial numbers of the products at issue. Currently, such specific information is optional.

The report also found that only about one-third of the complaints it received as of July contained the required information, and those that didn’t were not made public.

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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