On March 11, 2001, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will activate its long-awaited consumer complaint website, located at saferproducts.gov. While the CPSC insists that the website will not be a “blog,” the reality is that the website will likely become a hub of on-line activity – both for consumers and for attorneys looking to mine information for potential litigation. We expect that the site will post literally hundreds of thousands of complaints about products every year. Manufacturers, private labelers, retailers, licensors, distributors and anyone in the supply chain should be sure to monitor the site and any collateral on-line activity arising from the site. More specifically, manufacturers, private labelers and importers should register on the site, so that they can promptly receive consumer complaints and consider whether to respond within the ten business-day window. Click here to register your company.

How Does the Site Work?

Consumers, or lawyers reporting for consumers, need only fill out a brief on-line report. The report requires contact information for the consumer and/or lawyer, the product’s model number, where applicable the product’s serial number, the name of the product, and a brief description of the consumer’s problem and date of incident. Within five business days of submission, the CPSC will alert the named manufacturer of the product, and the manufacturer then has 10 business days in which to investigate the consumer’s report, and if it desires, submit a response to the CPSC. The CPSC will then post the consumer’s report on the website, with an accompanying link to the manufacturer’s response. If the CPSC can identify only a product’s private labeler, and not its manufacturer, then the private labeler has the right to respond within ten days, or to identify the actual manufacturer - who will then have an additional 10 business days to respond.

The CPSC will not screen consumer submissions for anything other than obvious inaccuracies, products not governed by the CPSC (automobiles, for instance which are governed by NHTSA), or duplication of other reports about the identical incident. Consumers need not have suffered any injury or incurred any property damage – there need not even be anything actually wrong or defective with the product. If consumers have been injured or incurred property damage, there need not be any causal connection between the product (let alone a defect in the product) and the injury or the damage. For instance, if a consumer reports he or she was riding a bicycle and cut their finger when falling off the bike, the CPSC will post that report. If a consumer reports he amputated a finger when he picked up his lawnmower to trim an overhead hedge, the CPSC will post that report.

Whether you are a manufacturer, private labeler, importer or retailer, the potential impact of this site on brand value and product sales, not to mention product liability exposure, cannot be underestimated. Media outlets, consumer groups, other websites, are free to link to this website, which has the imprimatur of the United States government – even though the CPSC is merely parroting complaints, and not making any determination that a product is defective, let alone that a product even caused a reported incident. These consumer reports may also provide manufacturers with the kind of information that may trigger a duty for the manufacturer to report a potential product defect to the CPSC. With the maximum penalty for failure to report now at $15 million dollars, and the CPSC now armed with increased funding and lawyers from the Department of Justice, manufacturers must be more keenly aware than ever of the circumstances under which they must report to the CPSC a potential product defect. While Republicans in the House of Representatives have proposed legislation that would block the new database, that legislation is not likely to pass through the Senate, and if it ever does it will certainly not before the March 11 start date.