Product Liability & Torts

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The U.S. Department of Justice and Consumer Product Safety Commission recently announced that they had entered into consent decrees with three New York-based toy companies and five individuals for importing and selling products that violate the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and the Consumer Product Safety Act. The consent decrees enter permanent injunctions against the companies from importing and selling toys until certain remedial actions are implemented and monitored by the CPSC. The decrees can be read here and here.

The DOJ and CPSC alleged that the individuals and companies – Everbright Trading Inc., Lily Popular Varieties & Gifts Inc., and Great Great Corporation – imported and sold numerous children’s toys and products that contained high levels lead content, lead paint, and phthalates; contained small parts; and violated the mandatory toy safety standard (ASTM F-963), bicycle helmet safety standard, and labeling of art material (LHAMA) requirements.


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Fuzzy talking toys are no longer the annoying, yet benign Christmas gifts they used to be. Many of today’s toys, like refrigerators, cars, and televisions, are “smart,” and may come gift-wrapped with all of the emerging cybersecurity risks the internet has to offer. And as various government agencies grapple with the regulation and enforcement of smart products, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) may be narrowing in on smart toy manufacturers as a potential target. The FBI and FTC issued separate alerts last week highlighting potential threats posed by cuddly friends that collect children’s voices and other identifying information and putting manufacturers on notice of potential enforcement actions for failure to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”), respectively.


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On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision clarifying the circumstances in which a lawsuit “arises out of” or “relates to” a corporation’s contacts with a particular jurisdiction, such that it can be sued there. In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Alito held that California state courts do not have jurisdiction to hear the product liability claims of non-California residents against Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., a foreign corporation. The Court reasoned that the nonresident plaintiffs “do not claim to have suffered harm in that state” from their use of BMS’ drug Plavix, and “all the conduct giving rise to the nonresidents’ claims occurred elsewhere.” The Supreme Court found insufficient BMS’ substantial sales in California, including through its use of 250 sales representatives in that state.


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FTC Moves Ahead Enforcing Endorsement Cases

A few months ago, acting Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Olhausen stated that the FTC should shift focus to cases of actual harm, leaving many to wonder whether FTC would still actively enforce endorsement cases. However, in April, the FTC sent out ninety letters to brand influencers and marketers reminding those influencers and marketers to clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationship to brands. On the heels of these April letters, the FTC filed a complaint and ultimately reached entered a proposed settlement order (“order”) with two brothers that relied on deceptive endorsements and misleading review websites to sell Infinity and Olympus Pro brand trampolines.


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On June 7, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provided administrative law followers a fascinating case study. For the first time in two decades, the CPSC’s five Commissioners heard an appeal put on by CPSC staff in administrative litigation. In its appeal, the staff seeks to overturn an administrative law judge’s opinion finding that Zen Magnets’ controversial high powered, small rare earth magnets (SREMs) are not defective and are not a substantial product hazard when sold with appropriate warnings. Novel already, what made this argument all the more interesting was an additional wrinkle:  four of the five Commissioners who heard the appeal had voted previously to approve a final safety standard that has the practical effect of banning such magnets outright.


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The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011, promised sweeping reform of food safety practices from farm to fork, and shifted FDA’s regulatory posture from reacting to food contamination to proactively preventing it. While the Trump administration has vowed to eliminate two regulations for every new regulation, at this year’s Food and Drug Law Institute’s Annual meeting, Dr. Susan Mayne, the Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, made clear that FSMA is the law of the land and FDA fully intends to continue its implementation and enforcement of it.


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CPSC Reaches Civil Penalty Agreement with Viking Range and Middleby Corporation; Firms to Pay $4.65 Million to Resolve Late Reporting Allegations Over Defective Gas Ranges

StoveThe U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has announced a civil penalty settlement with Viking Range, LLC of Greenwood, Mississippi and its parent company, The Middleby Corporation of Elgin, Illinois. The companies have agreed to pay a civil penalty of $4.65 million to resolve charges that they knowingly failed to immediately report allegedly defective gas ranges to the Commission under Section 15(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA). This civil penalty, the second of 2017, follows the Commission’s $5.8 million civil penalty levied against Keurig Green Mountain in February. Both penalties underscore that the Commission’s general approach to civil penalties, and desire to increase the amount of penalties imposed for violations, will not change overnight with new agency leadership. Indeed, the Acting Chairman actually voted against the settlement agreement, proposing instead an amendment to reduce the amount of the civil penalty to $2 million.


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Federal Trade Commission
Federal Trade Commission

Presidential advisor Steve Bannon famously told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the Trump Administration seeks to “deconstruct” the regulatory state. The President has issued several Executive Orders (EOs) on regulations designed to implement this policy, including the “two for one” EO, an EO on enforcing the regulatory agenda, and an EO on reorganizing the executive branch.  The three orders collectively promote a policy of deregulation and wholesale elimination of administrative functions deemed overly burdensome to business, redundant, or outdated.

This week, the White House followed through on that agenda by publishing a proposed budget that would impose sweeping budget reductions on almost every federal agency, with the exception of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The key consumer protection agencies—the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—are not directly subject to any of these EOs or addressed in the President’s Budget Request. But that does not mean these agencies are in the clear in terms of budget-cutting or deregulatory efforts.  Rather, it seems more likely that the administration is preoccupied with bigger fish at the moment; in the meantime, they are treading carefully.  Which raises the question:  what else is in store for these agencies once they regain the Trump Administration’s focus?


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