Robertshaw Controls Co., a Richmond manufacturer, said yesterday it will contest charges that it violated the Consumer Product Safety Act by filing incomplete and misleading information about deaths and injuries associated with a defect in a gas water heater control that it ceased making in 1957.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a complaint Tuesday in which it seeks a civil penalty of $500,000 against Robertshaw for allegedly failing eight years ago to report 47 deaths and 93 injuries from explosions allegedly caused by the control.
The complaint was filed even though Robertshaw implemented a corrective action plan to which the CPSC staff agreed last year.
A lawyer for the commission explained yesterday that the civil penalty being sought by the CPSC is for the alleged failure by Robertshaw to make full disclosure in the matter and not for any violations that might have occurred subsequent to 1980.
An administrative complaint filed by the CPSC staff alleges that after April 1974, Robertshaw learned of other deaths and injuries caused by explosions resulting from the defective control.
The complaint said the company failed to notify the commission of the deaths and injuries until 1980, when Robertshaw responded to a staff request to verify a third party's report of more deaths and injuries.
A spokesman for Robertshaw, although acknowledging the controls manufactured by the company between 1954 and 1957 were defective, denied any wrongdoing and confidently predicted that Robertshaw will prevail at a hearing to be held by an administrative law judge.
A hearing date hasn't been set, but Robertshaw has 20 days in which to answer the complaint. Conceivably, the company could seek to resolve the matter in court.
The spokesman for Robertshaw said the company discovered the defect in the control in the '60s and that, indeed, it did properly notify the CPSC in 1974 of incidents that had been reported.
"We certainly did comply with the law," the spokesman contended. "We've done everything the CPSC asked."
About 312,500 of the controls manufactured by Robertshaw were installed in liquid petroleum gas water heaters nationwide. And although Robertshaw since last year has conducted what the CPSC describes as a "rather extensive campaign" to locate controls that still may be in use, just 1,600 of the 25-year-old units have been found.
As part of the corrective action plan, Robertshaw has conducted an extensive advertising campaign in trade publications, notified gas dealers, sent direct mailings to customers of gas companies and has offered a $100 bounty for each control returned.
In the meantime, several lawsuits stemming from injuries associated with the defective control have been filed against Robertshaw, a spokesman said.
Robertshaw is a worldwide manufacturer of automatic energy controls and control systems for residential and commercial buildings and industrial applications. It reported sales of $351 million last year.