The Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to assess civil penalties against companies that fail to report unsafe products, rather than seek penalties in court, agency officials said yesterday.

The announcement was the latest development in a controversy dating to mid-1982 when the CPSC filed a complaint against Robertshaw Controls Co. for allegedly failing to report information about possible defects in some of its liquid petroleum (LP) gas valves, as required by the Consumer Product Safety Act.

In that complaint, the CPSC staff charged there had been 47 deaths and 93 injuries associated with the defects in Robertshaw's Unitrol 110 and Unitrol 200 gas water heater controls. The staff asked that Robertshaw be required to pay a civil penalty of $500,000.

Robertshaw Controls, which is based in Richmond, moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the commission lacked statutory authority to assess civil penalties administratively. After a drawn-out battle on that question, the CPSC now has decided by a unanimous vote that the law is on its side and that it does have the right to assess penalties.

Officials of Robertshaw could not be reached yesterday for comment on the CPSC action or on any further legal steps that the company may decide to take.

But because of questions raised in the Robertshaw case, lawmakers on both sides of Congress have written into the CPSC reauthorization bills some language clarifying and strengthening the agency's right to assess civil penalties.

The committee actions have triggered a strong lobbying move by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA)--in which Robertshaw is a principal force--and the National Association of Manufacturers to get rid of the clarification included in the reauthorization bills.

Consumer advocates countered by writing a letter to Senate consumer subcommittee Chairman Robert Kasten.

"This effort to alter the commission's authority is narrowly directed to bailing out some very undeserving companies, including Robertshaw Controls," said the letter written by Consumer Federation of America legislative director David Greenberg.

Greenberg included in his letter a listing of other companies that had to pay civil penalties after failing to report defective and unsafe products.

In the 30 proceedings initiated by the CPSC against companies accused of violating the reporting law, the products involved have ranged from design-defective refuse bins that tipped over and killed children to unlabeled CB antennas that delivered fatal electric shocks to their users.

"Since the commission has used its power sparingly and responsibly, the industry-backed change to require the CPSC to use its valuable resources to go to court to fine violators is self-interested and unnecessary," Greenberg wrote.