The Justice Department yesterday filed lawsuits against Toys R Us and six other toy importers and retailers to prevent the companies from importing and selling hazardous toys, such as xylophones with toxic levels of lead-based paint and rattles with small parts that could choke children.
The civil lawsuits were filed in federal courts across the country after an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Customs Service found that the companies repeatedly imported toys that allegedly violated federal health and safety standards. The lawsuits seek injunctions against the companies to prohibit them from importing hazardous toys.
"Today's lawsuits are an important step toward preventing even a single dangerous toy from reaching innocent children," Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said in a statement.
The lawsuits do not seek to levy any fines or penalties against the companies. But if injunctions were issued and the companies continued to import dangerous toys, they would be subject to "unlimited" fines, said Justice Department spokesman Frank Kelly.
Kelly said this was the first time the Justice Department had filed lawsuits against such a large number of companies over toy safety violations. The companies named in the lawsuits are among the largest toy retailers and distributors in the country
Toys R Us, the giant toy retailer based in Paramus, N.J., was cited in the lawsuit for allegedly importing toys with toxic lead paint and dangerous small parts. Some toys named in the lawsuit included the "Crib Pals Shake and Twist Rattle," which had unsafe small parts, and the "Music Master Xylophone" that violated lead paint regulations. Other toys named were "Pop Up Pals Colorforms," "Ernie the Drummer" and "Pull Back Plane."
"The suit is without merit. Our safety record is excellent, and we believe we will prevail in any action," said Michael Goldstein, vice chairman of Toys R Us. "We believe this a waste of the taxpayers money."
Goldstein and Toys R Us chief executive Charles Lazarus are named as defendants in the lawsuit, as were the top executives of all the companies targeted by the Justice Department.
The government's lawsuit against Child World Inc., based in Avon, Mass., alleged that the company repeatedly imported toys that violated federal regulations.
"We have no comment," said Terry Burmeister, spokesman for Child World's parent company, Cole National Corp., in Cleveland, which operates 175 "toy supermarkets" nationwide.
The other companies hit with lawsuits were toy retailer Lionel Leisure Inc. in Philadelphia, parent company of Lionel Kiddie City stores; and toy wholesalers Illco Toy Co., USA Inc. in New York; Beachcombers International Inc. in Fort Myers, Fla.; and Value Merchants Inc. in Milwaukee.
Mike Mervis, spokesman for Value Merchants, said the company has been negotiating with the Consumer Product Safety Commission for five months over the alleged infractions. "We are very surprised with the action taken," Mervis said. "Though we have not seen the complaint, we have attempted to comply with all applicable statutes."
Mervis said the federal regulations were unfair because they "place a 100 percent burden on wholesalers and importers that is physically impossible to meet." He said his company, which sells thousands of toys to major retailers nationwide, has to trust that manufacturers are complying with the regulations. Like most other wholesalers, Value Toys imports most of its toys from the Far East.
Officials from the other companies were not available for comment.
Dan Rumelt, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the violations were revealed during routine inspections of toys on store shelves. The Customs Service also detected violations when officials examined imported toys.
Most of the toys identified contained labels indicating the toys were suitable for children ages 3 and up. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission found most of the toys were purchased for children under 3.