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Feds Investigate Car Seat Maker Graco

A nightmare of a car accident that took place on a Los Angeles freeway in August 2011 ended tragically with the death of an 11-month-old girl. Leiana Ramirez was traveling with her mother when an SUV crashed into their Nissan Altima, which instantly burst into flames. According to local news reports, several witnesses raced to help the child’s mother as she tried to extricate her little girl from the fiery crash.

But not one of them was able to unbuckle the car seat. Two of the men ended up with severe burns on their hands. “You could hear the screams of the child,” said one witness.“They were high-pitched and terrible. Then they stopped.”

The manufacturer of the car seat in question, Graco, was named defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit. A spokesperson for the company stated that the ‘Nautilus’ car seat was not at fault, and a confidential settlement between the two parties was reached.

An unfortunate accident? A one-off, not likely to re-occur? Read on…

Over 6,000 complaints

By October 2012 there were so many complaints about buckles getting stuck on Graco car seats, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was obligated to investigate. In many cases, parents had to cut the straps to free their child from the seat.

By January 2014 the agency had received more than 6,000 complaints, and a request was made to Graco to conduct a recall. So, since the lives of babies and children are at risk here, you might assume that Graco would gracefully agree to this request.

Unfortunately not. Graco put out a statement saying that the root cause of the problem was “food, dried liquid drinks, vomit, formula, etc.,” which had leaked into the buckles (all 6,000 of them!) and stiffened them up. They even posted instructions on how to clean the buckles on their website.

As the NHTSA continued to request a recall, the company finally caved in February 2014. A “Defect Information Report” was issued, detailing problems with the buckles on 3.7 million of their car seats. NHTSA was not satisfied, and sent a harshly worded letter questioning why infant car seats weren’t included. It accused the company of providing “incomplete and misleading” information for consumers.

More pressure from the government agency, and the recall was expanded to 4.1 million seats in March.  They later recalled another nearly 2 million rear-facing infant car seats. All in all, a total of more than 6 million child seats were affected.

Children at risk

Let’s think of this in terms of children – if 6 million car seats have been recalled, 6 million children are at risk.

So now that there’s a recall in place, will all 6 million children be made safe? Not a hope. ABC news“20/20” did an investigation into the product recall system, and the results were shocking. According to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Elliot Kaye: “The government estimates a “good” recall only actually takes about 20% of the potentially dangerous products off the market – from appliances that could catch fire, to childcare products that have contributed to terrible injuries and deaths. On the lower end, some recalls only see 5% of products returned or fixed.”

And according to the Graco website, which, incidentally describes itself as “one of the world’s best known and most trusted juvenile products companies”, parents can still use their current car seat while waiting for the new buckle to arrive.

Federal investigation launched

Graco isn’t off the hook with the government yet. According to federal rules, a manufacturer is required to report a safety defect within five days of becoming aware of it. In this case, it seemed to take the company years to report the problem, and then only after pressure to do so.

As a result, the NHTSA is about to launch an investigation into whether Graco deliberately delayed putting the “largest child seat recall in U.S. history” into effect.

So what happens if the investigation finds that the company was in violation of the law? Apparently they could face up to $35 million in fines. How would this affect the company? Not as much as you might think. Graco is owned by Newell Rubbermaid Inc, a global marketer of all sorts of consumer and commercial products, with 2013 sales totaling almost $6 billion.

Newell did reported a decline in sales of 2.4% for their first quarter due to the car seat recall,  which has already been recovered, by the way – just a drop in the bucket for a company of this magnitude.

Accountability

Three years after the harrowing death of baby Leiana Ramirez, and after thousands and thousands of complaints, Graco is still trying to reassure parents that their car seats are safe:  “There have been no reported injuries related to this issue or the safe use of the car seats,” they state on their website. Really Graco?

 
video source:
CBS This Morning (Feb 12, 2014) – “Regulators say Graco did not recall enough car seats”