Until April 4, 1978, Parker Brothers had no reason to believe that it had anything but a big winner in its new children's toy, Riviton.
A construction toy for 6- to 12-year-olds, Riviton had become a best seller, with more than 900,000 sets sold in less than two years.
But on that spring day, a phone call to Parker's Beverly, Mass., headquaters from a toy industry lawyer began a chain reaction that would challenge the credibility of the 96-year-old company and shake the foundation of its time-earned reputation.
What eventually occurred was a all-too-rare example of a company averting a potential disaster and at the same time beating the regulatory process to the punch.
The phone call to Parker Brothers President Randolph Barton was from the legal counsel for the Toy Manufacturers of America, who said he had just learned of the death, about three months earlier, of an 8-year-old boy in Wisconsin who had suffocated with a Riviton rivet in his right lung.
"We learned later that the attorney representing the boy's family had contracted the Consumer Product Safety Commission and that a regional office of the commission had conducted a hazard evaluation of Riviton," Barton remembers. "No action was recommended by the CPSC. At the time, we concluded the incident was an isolated freak accident which did not warrant action on our part."
But seven months later, on a Thursday in November, Barton received another call on Riviton from a New Jersey newspaper reporter who said that a 9-year-old New Jersey boy had suffocated on a Riviton rivet.
"We made attempts to confirm the reported death but were unable to obtain specifics until the following Monday, Nov. 20," Barton said. "On Monday, the presence of the rivet in the boy's lung was confirmed."
At that point, Barton and the rest of Parker management met to review the situation.
Two deaths had occurred, but the product had met all voluntary and industry-set safety standards. "We were under no pressure from any government agency to do anything," Barton added.
"But," he said, "we never before in 95 years of being in business had heard of a serious accident or fatality resulting from the use or misuse of any of our products."
The Parker management team saw four alternatives:
"We could do nothing," Barton said. "Perhaps, in fact, we were over-reacting. Both accidents clearly resulted from product misuse." But, he added, two such deaths clearly indicated the potential for further misuse existed.
The company could issue a statement of warning to the consumer and put such a warning on the label of the package, pointing out the hazards of possible misuse. "We felt, however, that such a measure would not be effective in preventing future misuse," Barton said.
The product could be modified to eliminated the possible hazard. "But the problem there was timing." Barton remembered. "There was no effective means of modifying the product available. It could take months of research and testing."
The final option - on which the company decided - was total recall. "Ultimately, we wanted to act responsibly and promptly to prevent additional product misuse," Barton said. "We felt a recall would be taken seriously by the consumer."
So on the following Monday morning, Parker Brother called its corporate lawyers for an opinion - Parker is a division of General Mills Inc.
The next morning - Tuesday Nov. 21 - Barton put out a "stop ship" order and assembled a task force to evaluated the situation quickly and develop the most effective recall procedure.
By the end of that day, the task force had developed a plan, and Barton was on his way to New York to meet with his corporate superiors.
"They agreed with our analysis of the options that were available," Barton said."They also agreed with our recommendation that Riviton should be pulled off the market."
But still one more meeting was set for General Mills' top management on Friday, Nov. 24 - the day after Thanksgiving. That group, the company's policy committee, also quickly approved the recall.
Parker's chief counsel then called the Consumer Product Safety Commission to inform it of the impending action.
And on that same day, Parker Brother issued the first news release on the recall. It was brief but to the point.
"BEVERLY, MASS. - Parker Brothers today announced the voluntary recall of all Riviton Construction Toys.
"While the Riviton Construction Toy complies with all safety requirements and does not present a hazard when properly used, Parker Brothers has made the decision to withdraw this product from the market because of two accidental deaths associated with product misuse
"The company reached this decision after the recent death of a 9-year-old child was attributed to choking on a rubber fastening rivet from the Riviton Construction Toy."
Parker hired extra personnel to man toll-free telephones and offered full rebates.
"There was no chance the release could be misunderstood," Barton said. "It stated that two children had died. We expected to have an absolute flood of phone calls from the press."
"They never came," he said.
Because the release came on a holiday weekend, few papers used it.
So the next day, Parker began contracting its major customers by telegram and phone call to have them start taking returns immediately. The company also hired extra personnel to dispose of the sets as they were returned - either through incineration or burial.
The following Monday, Parker went to the press again, and this time the story took hold. Both wire services and the television networks did stories, and hundreds of newspaper ran stories.
The sets began pouring in. Now, seven months later, they are still coming in at the rate of 200 a week.
'At this point," Barton said during an interview this week, 'We have better than 420,000 of the 935,000 sets back, and they are still coming in. We have met our primary objective."
Did the recall effort hurt Parker financially? Estimated cost to the company, according to sources, was about $10 million.
"Not at all," Barton said. 'By demonstrating our concern for the millions of parents and children who buy and use our products, we have built a more solid relationship with our consumers than ever before."