Beveridge & Diamond
 

Mandatory Self-Disclosure of Product Problems to the CPSC

Expanded CPSC Reporting Requirements
Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., May 18, 2009

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (“CPSIA”) is now well-known for its new requirements affecting children’s products, toys, and child care articles, particularly those containing lead or phthalates.  Less well-recognized is the significant impact of the CPSIA on the long-standing requirement under Section 15(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (“CPSA”) to report certain product problems to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC” or “Commission”).  Under the CPSIA, the scope of the Section 15(b) reporting requirement has expanded considerably, the CPSC has greater authority to respond to the reports, and the potential penalties for failure to report have increased exponentially.  The CPSC has already begun enforcing its new Section 15 authority aggressively.  In addition, the Obama Administration’s proposed 71% increase in the Commission’s FY 2010 budget suggests that tougher enforcement of all CPSC requirements can be expected going forward. 

Congress designed Section 15 to force companies regulated by the CPSC to self-report potential product hazards, and to provide the CPSC with the authority necessary to address any such hazards.  Specifically, Section 15(b) requires manufacturers, distributors, importers, and retailers to notify the CPSC of certain potential product safety hazards, and it authorizes the CPSC to order regulated companies to take certain corrective actions when it determines that a hazard exists. 

The CPSIA, enacted in August 2008, expands the scope of product safety violations that trigger Section 15(b) reporting requirements, and it grants the CPSC additional corrective action authority.  This client alert describes product hazard reporting and the CPSC’s authority to address product hazards before and after the enactment of the CPSIA, and then discusses recent major CPSC enforcement actions, suggesting that Section 15(b) enforcement will be a key priority for the Commission.

Section 15 Pre-CPSIA

Before the enactment of the CPSIA, “Section 15(b) Reports” were required when a regulated entity obtained information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a consumer product:

  • Failed to comply with an applicable consumer product safety rule or with a voluntary consumer product safety standard upon which the Commission had relied;
  • Contained a defect which could create a substantial product hazard; or
  • Created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.

Section 15(b) applied to “consumer products,” a term defined only in the CPSA and not in the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (“FHSA”), the Flammable Fabrics Act (“FFA”), the Poison Prevention Packaging Act (“PPPA”), or the Refrigerator Safety Act (“RSA”).

While ambiguity existed as to whether Section 15(b) applied to the FHSA, FFA, PPPA, and RSA, CPSC interpretive regulations at 16 C.F.R. § 1115.2(d) took the position that Section 15(b) applied to those other Acts under operation of Section 30(d) of the CPSA. 

Section 15(b) Reports were required to be submitted to the CPSC “immediately.”  The Commission interpreted this to mean generally within 24 hours of learning of a potential product hazard (see 16 C.F.R. § 1115.14(e).)  Section 15(b) Reports were not required, however, if the regulated company possessed actual knowledge that the CPSC had been adequately informed of the potential product hazard.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Section 15(b) reporting requirement -- and a source of considerable ambiguity for regulated companies -- was the requirement to submit a Section 15(b) Report when information reasonably supported a conclusion that a product either contained a defect which could create a substantial product hazard or created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.  This precautionary standard required companies to report potentially hazardous products before an injury or death occurred.  In addition, making these judgments involved a fact-intensive and subjective approach.  While regulatory provisions provided a measure of guidance, no single, bright-line test existed for making these determinations.

In contrast, regulated companies were essentially required to automatically submit a Section 15(b) Report when they possessed information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a product failed to comply with a consumer product safety rule or voluntary standard under the CPSA.  These determinations almost always depended upon straightforward scientific or engineering conclusions.  For example, bicycle helmets must meet several safety specifications, including peripheral vision requirements.  Once a regulated company knew that a helmet did not provide sufficient peripheral vision, Section 15(b) reporting obligations were automatically triggered. 

CPSC interpretive regulations detailing the reporting responsibilities appear in 16 C.F.R. Part 1115, and are further explained in the CPSC’s Recall Handbook, available at http://www.cpsc.gov/BUSINFO/8002.html.

Submission of a Section 15(b) Report about a product did not automatically mean that the CPSC would conclude that a product created a product hazard or that corrective action was necessary.  Depending on the nature of the hazard, many reports required no further action.  If the CPSC determined that corrective action was necessary, it could order such actions, e.g., provide notice to the public, replace products, and recall products, after providing interested persons a right to a hearing.  As a practical matter, however, most recalls were “voluntary,” i.e., no hearing occurred and the regulated company consulted with the CPSC to develop a corrective action program.  (In Fiscal Year 2008, all 563 recalls overseen by the CPSC were voluntary.)

Section 15 Post-CPSIA

Congress essentially left intact the core pre-CPSIA Section 15 requirements discussed above.  Congress also increased the scope of products potentially subject to Section 15(b) reporting requirements and modestly expanded the CPSC’s corrective action authority.  

Among other things, the CPSIA amended the CPSA to resolve an ambiguity regarding the applicability of Section 15 outside the CPSA.  The CPSIA explicitly expanded Section 15(b) reporting requirements to apply to all products covered by any statute enforced by the CPSC, i.e., the FHSA, the FFA, the PPPA, and the RSA.

The CPSIA also extended the former “automatic” reporting requirements applicable to non-compliance with consumer product safety rules and voluntary standards under the CPSC to apply to non-compliance with rules, regulations, standards, and bans enforced by the CPSC under any statute.  The CPSA did not previously require a Section 15(b) Report when products did not comply with rules, regulations, standards, and bans promulgated under the FHSA, PPPA, FFA and RSA.  Instead, companies, as described above, undertook the difficult task of determining whether a defect or unreasonable risk of serious injury or death existed. 

The CPSIA eliminated this problem by requiring, in essence, an automatic Section 15(b) Report when a product fails to comply with any rule, regulation, standard, or ban promulgated under any CPSC-administered statute.  These include, among other things, the restrictions on lead in children’s products; restrictions on lead paint in toys and other articles intended for children (this standard existed pre-CPSIA); restrictions on phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles; and restrictions imposed by the ASTM Toy Safety Standard.  The reporting requirements also appear to apply to obligations under the CPSIA to test, certify, and label certain consumer products.

The CPSIA also granted the CPSC additional corrective action authority, after providing opportunity for a hearing (1) to cease distribution of a product, (2) to notify others in the supply chain to cease distribution, and (3) to notify State and local public health officials.  (Note that the CPSIA provides that a hearing is not required, and the CPSC may take certain corrective actions, if a hazard is imminent and the CPSC has filed an action under Section 12 of the CPSA.) 

The new Section 15(b) reporting requirements, along with the increase in the CPSC’s budget and resources and more public awareness of consumer product hazards, may increase the frequency of recalls, according to the General Accounting Office (“GAO”) report Feasibility of Requiring Financial Assurances for the Recall or Destruction of Unsafe Goods, Apr. 22, 2009, available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09512r.pdf.  (The GAO submitted the report to Congress pursuant to CPSIA Section 224.)  This raises the question of whether regulated entities will be less willing to enter into “voluntary” agreements and will force the CPSC, before taking action, to either make an imminent hazard determination and file an action under CPSA Section 12, or conduct a hearing and determine that a substantial product hazard exists under Section 15.  As indicated above, the CPSC has historically not used its authority to order notices and recalls; instead, it has entered into “voluntary” agreements with regulated entities. 

With implementation of these new authorities ongoing, the precise nature of a company’s new Section 15 obligations, and the CPSC’s approach to implementing corrective actions, remains unclear.  However, it is clear that companies, particularly those selling children’s products, child care articles, and toys, will be required to submit Section 15(b) Reports to the CPSC if any of their products should fail to meet the relevant restrictions. 

Section 212 of the CPSIA directed the CPSC to establish a public consumer product safety database that would be publicly available, searchable, and accessible through the Commission’s website.  Section 15(b) Reports are not included among the mandatory content for the database, although the CPSC may add them as “any additional information it determines to be in the public interest.”

           

Post-CPSIA Enforcement of Section 15(b)

Section 217 of the CPSIA substantially increased the potential civil penalties for Section 15(b) violations set forth in Section 20(a) of the CPSA.  It increased the maximum penalty for a knowing violation to $100,000 (from $5,000, a 20-fold increase), with penalties being assessed on a per-unit-sold basis.  The CPSIA also increased the maximum penalty for any related series of violations to $15,000,000 (from $1,250,000, a 12-fold increase).  The CPSC is required to issue a final regulation providing its interpretation of the enumerated penalty factors by August 14, 2009.  These increased maximum penalties will take effect on that date or the date the regulation is issued, if earlier.

Section 218 of the CPSIA authorized state attorneys general to enforce certain aspects of the CPSC, as amended.  This authority did not include authority to enforce the requirement to submit Section 15(b) Reports.

The CPSC has already begun implementing its new Section 15 authority.  For example, in April 2009, the CPSC announced a new Section 15(b) reporting feature.  See CPSC Announces New Section 15(b) Reporting Feature, available at http://www.cpsc.gov/businfo/sect15features.pdf.  The feature enables regulated entities to submit Section 15(b) Reports via the CPSC’s webpage, thereby streamlining how the Commission receives and processes information about potential product hazards.  The creation of this feature suggests the Commission is preparing for an onslaught of Section 15(b) Reports. 

In addition, two recent CPSC enforcement actions suggest that the Commission will place a high priority on the enforcement of Section 15 obligations.  On April 7, 2009, the CPSC issued a press release announcing settlements with 14 companies for their failure to submit Section 15(b) Reports.  The CPSC accused the settling companies of knowingly failing to report that children’s hooded sweatshirts and jackets they sold had drawstrings at the hood and/or neck, a feature in children’s outerwear which the CPSC had determined in May 2006 to be defective and a substantial risk of injury to children.  The settling companies agreed to pay $1,055,000 in civil penalties.  A press release describing the settlement is available at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml09/09188.html

A week later, on April 14, 2009, the CPSC announced another significant settlement, one that emphasizes a company’s obligation to provide to the CPSC full and updated Section 15 disclosures.  The settling company agreed to pay a $1.1 million civil penalty for its failure to submit information regarding hazards presented by magnetic building sets.  According to the CPSC, a predecessor company had submitted several incomplete and misleading reports to the Commission in 2005 and 2006.  For example, one report attributed product problems to product misuse despite allegedly possessing over a thousand reports of product defects.  Other reports only partially responded to requests for information from the CPSC.  These series of events ultimately led the CPSC to issue a subpoena to obtain product and incident information.  Additional information regarding the settlement is available at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml09/09193.html

These recent actions, whose penalties do not reflect the increases that will become available under the CPSIA later this year, indicate that the CPSC will strictly enforce Section 15(b).  In light of the expanded scope of violations that may potentially trigger a Section 15(b) Report and the greatly increased penalties, regulated companies should consider how their businesses may be affected by the new Section 15 obligations created by the CPSIA.      

For more information about Section 15(b) reporting requirements or about the statutory and regulatory requirements enforced by the CPSC, please contact Mark Duvall (mduvall@bdlaw.com), Paul Hagen (phagen@bdlaw.com), or Bart Kempf (bkempf@bdlaw.com). 

For a printable PDF of this article, please click here.

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