Edward M. Swartz, 76

Edward M. Swartz, 76, dies; lawyer was a pioneer on toy safety

Mr. Swartz demonstrates
Mr. Swartz demonstrates "crazy eyes" after a news conference in 1977. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Edward M. Swartz, a flamboyant personal injury lawyer and consumer-safety activist whose annual list of the top 10 most dangerous toys helped force parents, government regulators and manufacturers to pay more attention to the hidden perils of playthings, died Sept. 3 of congestive heart failure at his home in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He was 76.

Mr. Swartz took on the multibillion-dollar toy industry each year with his top 10 list, invariably released to widespread media attention at the height of the holiday shopping season.

His targets included a wolverine costume with a "flexi-claw glove," whose four-inch retractable claws endangered young eyeballs; the Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kid doll, which had a habit of chewing on children's hair, leaving bald spots; and the seemingly innocent My Little Wood Wagon, whose slats, he said, could be easily removed, exposing dangerous screws.

"He basically pioneered the whole area of toy safety," consumer-safety advocate Ralph Nader said this week. "He documented it, he litigated it, he advocated for regulatory standards and recalls . . . and he engaged in massive public education."

Toy industry representatives said Mr. Swartz's toy-safety tactics were simply an effort to drum up business for his law practice. They painted him as a greedy lawyer whose tactics contributed to an avalanche of product liability lawsuits and a growing unwillingness among consumers to accept responsibility for their own actions.

"It's like saying you should never put a spoon in the hands of a child because he can ram it down his throat," Stephen Schwartz of the toy company Hasbro said in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post.

Mr. Swartz launched his career as a national spokesman for toy safety with his 1971 book "Toys That Don't Care," which Washington Post reviewer Myra MacPherson called "a valuable compendium of what not to buy, as well as an angry exposé of how little the government, the toy manufacturers or anyone else is doing to make toys safe."

Known as the "Nader of the Nursery," Mr. Swartz went beyond simple examination of the choking hazards, sharp edges and toxic materials harbored by baby dolls and teddy bears. He highlighted toys' psychological hazards, pointing out that among products marketed to children were fake hypodermic needles emblazoned with the slogan "I'll try anything" and a packet of candy cigarettes picturing a man burning a woman's back with his cigarette.

In 1973, the federal government created the Consumer Product Safety Commission to protect the public from defective merchandise. Mr. Swartz became a dogged critic of the commission, calling its enforcement of toy-safety regulations toothless and ineffective.

In the mid-1980s, he founded the nonprofit World Against Toys Causing Harm and published a second book, "Toys That Kill" (1986). He did not shy from hyperbole. "The object of some of these companies," he said in 1987, "is to turn our playing fields into killing fields."

Mr. Swartz was as successful in the courtroom as he was in the court of public opinion. In the early 1980s, he won $3.1 million from the toy company Fisher-Price, which he sued on behalf of the parents of a 14-month-old child who suffered brain damage after choking on one of the company's Little People figurines.

He found targets outside the toy industry as well. In the early 1970s, he won a $1.4 million verdict for a family whose children were severely burned when their bedding caught fire and melted onto their skin. A decade later, he won a $6.5 million judgment for a family whose son had been paralyzed after diving into a shallow swimming pool -- he argued that the manufacturer was negligent because it had used images of diving children to market the four-foot-deep pool.

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