The CPSC’s Defective New Complaints Database

We are told constantly that government can play a beneficial role in the marketplace by taking steps to make sure consumers are more fully informed about the risks of the goods and services they use. But what happens when the government itself helps spread health and safety information that is false or misleading? That question came up recently in the controversy over New York City’s misleading nutrition-scare ad campaign, and it now comes up again in a controversy over a new database of complaints about consumer products sponsored by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), Congress mandated that the CPSC create a “publicly available consumer product safety information database” compiling consumer complaints about the safety of products. Last week, by a 3-2 majority, the commission voted to adopt regulations that have dismayed many in the business community by ensuring that the database will needlessly include a wide range of secondhand, false, unfounded or tactical reports. The Washington Times editorializes:

…[Under the regulations as adopted last week] anybody who wants to trash a product, for whatever reason, can do so. The commission can leave a complaint on the database indefinitely without investigating its merits “even if a manufacturer has already provided evidence the claim is inaccurate,” as noted by Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers’ “Shopfloor” blog….

Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the “official” CPSC website as [support for] their theories that a product in question caused vast harm. “The agency does not appear to be concerned about fairness and does not care that unfounded complaints could damage the reputation of a company,” said [Commissioner Nancy] Nord.

Commissioners Nord and Anne Northup introduced an alternative proposal (PDF) aimed at making the contents of the database more reliable and accurate but were outvoted by the Democratic commission majority led by Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. Nord: “under the majority’s approach, the database will not differentiate between complaints entered by lawyers, competitors, labor unions and advocacy groups who may have their own reasons to ‘salt’ the database, from those of actual consumers with firsthand experience with a product.” Commissioner Northup has published posts criticizing the regulations for their definitions of who can submit a report, who counts as a consumer, and who counts as a public safety entity.

For those interested in reading further, Rick Woldenberg, a leading private critic of the law who blogs at AmendTheCPSIA.com, has critically commented on the politics of the proposal here, here, here, here, and here. More coverage: ShopFloor with followups here and here, New York Times, Sean Wajert/Mass Tort Defense. I’ve been blogging for the past two years at my website Overlawyered about the wider problems with the CPSIA law, including its effects on books published before 1985, thrift stores, natural wooden toys, ballpoint pens, bicycles, plush animals, Irish dance costumes, rocks used in science class and many more. Most of these problems remain unresolved thanks to the inflexible wording of the law as well as, sometimes, the unsympathetic attitude of the commission majority. I’ve heard that bringing overdue investigative oversight to the ongoing CPSIA disaster is shaping up as a priority for many incoming lawmakers on the (newly Republican-led) House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose outgoing chair, California Democrat Henry Waxman, is closely identified with the law and its consumer-group backers.