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Clinton Seeks Stiffer Product Safety Penalties

Recalls: Legislation would upgrade misdemeanors to felonies and lift cap on fines. Bill also puts emphasis on items for children.

May 13, 2000|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled the president's plan Friday to toughen civil and criminal penalties for companies that fail to notify the government or consumers about potentially dangerous products.

The legislation would upgrade willful criminal violations of product safety laws from misdemeanors to felonies and eliminate the $1.6-million cap on civil penalties.

"With this legislation, the punishment will finally start to fit the crime," said Mrs. Clinton, who called million-dollar fines "just a drop in the bucket," with little effect on the profit margins of large corporations.

Although the changes would apply to most consumer products, Friday's announcement focused on children's products.

USA Today reported last month that at least 17 firms had been accused of keeping quiet about dangerous children's products since 1997. Ann Brown, chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said she had witnessed "a continuing trend of nonreporting."

Last year, the commission assessed $922,500 in fines, 10 times as much as it did 10 years ago. So far this year, fines have totaled more than $1.3 million.

In April, toy giant Hasbro Inc. agreed to pay a $400,000 civil penalty for failing to give consumers and the government timely notification about a defect in an infant carrier.

Hasbro waited until it had received 12 reports of infant carrier handles spontaneously unlatching, causing seven skull fractures, before informing the government of the problem and recalling the carriers in 1996.

Even after the recall, Hasbro continued to deny that the product had any defects or that the company violated any law.

Mrs. Clinton said that about half the products that eventually face federal recalls are not reported to the commission by the companies themselves but come to light through consumer complaints, federal investigations, emergency room records and even coroners' certificates.

Brown added that too often the safety commission had been forced to rely on its own "detective work."

In one instance last year, there were more than 3,000 complaints about a combination safety seat and infant carrier manufactured by Kolcraft Enterprises before the company agreed to a recall. Forty-two children had been injured.

Chicago-based Kolcraft never officially reported the defect before the government stepped in and launched an investigation, federal regulators said.

The president's plan also includes an enhanced reporting network, administered by the safety commission, to more effectively bring children's product injury information to the agency's attention.

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