Missteps delayed recall of deadly cribs
Despite 55 complaints, seven infants left trapped and three deaths, it took years for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to warn parents about 1 million flawed cribs.
The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which the 9-month-old boy slipped feet-first. Instead of falling to the floor, Liam got his head stuck between the rail and the mattress. Trapped in a hanging position, the boy asphyxiated.
Liam's April 2005 death prompted an investigation by a federal watchdog agency and a family lawsuit against the crib's manufacturer, Simplicity Inc.
But the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn't warn parents across the country about the potentially fatal flaw in Simplicity cribs--not after Liam suffocated, not after more complaints about the crib rails and not after two more infants died.
Once the Tribune began questioning the company and the agency this month, a massive recall of Simplicity cribs followed.
On Friday, the CPSC took action on 1 million cribs, including the model that the Johns family used for Liam. It is the largest recall of full-size cribs in the agency's history.
In its Hidden Hazards series, the Tribune has documented how the understaffed and sluggish CPSC fails to protect children from dangers in toys and other products. The paper's examination of Simplicity's popular cribs underscores that, even in the aftermath of a child's death, the agency can fall short in its watchdog role, leaving children vulnerable to a documented hazard.
Interviews and records show that the federal investigator assigned to Liam's death failed to inspect the crib in his initial inquiry and didn't track down the model or manufacturer.
"We get so many cases," the investigator, Michael Ng, said in an interview this month. "Once I do a report, I send it in and that's it. I go to the next case. We could spend more time, but we are under the gun. We have to move on."
Only last week, after inquiries by the Tribune, did Ng return to California to find the crib. It had first been held as evidence by sheriff's police and later was put in storage by a lawyer retained by the family.
Even with the recall, it remained unclear why it took so long to address the problem. The CPSC often gets bogged down in negotiations with companies over recalls because fedx eral law limits its powers and its ability to disclose details of its investigations into dangerous products.
Nancy Cowles, a child-product safety advocate and executive director of Kids In Danger, called for congressional hearings to look into the delay. "Was it because the CPSC has no power and the company was able to stall?" she asked.
When first presented with the Tribune findings this month, Julie Vallese, spokeswoman for the CPSC, said the agency could not comment about Simplicity. "We have more than one investigation open, and that's why I can't answer any questions," she said.
In announcing the recall Friday, the CPSC blamed a flawed crib design and hardware that allowed parents to install the drop rails upside down, which can cause the rail to detach from the frame. The agency said it was aware of seven non-fatal cases of infants being trapped and 55 other cases of drop-rail problems.
It also linked the Simplicity cribs to three deaths but did not release the names of those children or the dates of the fatal accidents.
One of those children was Liam Johns, records show. Another was 6-month-old Edward Millwood, who died in November 2006 in Georgia. The third was 8-month-old Royale Arceneaux, who died in February in Houston. All three children fell between the mattress and a separated drop rail.
The drop rails in those deaths had been installed upside down. But the agency also found two incidents in which correctly installed drop rails failed to work properly.
Ken Waldman, president of Simplicity Inc., said in an interview Friday that the company makes safe products and works closely with the CPSC to fix any problems. He would not say why the recall did not occur earlier.
"This is the thing to do and that's why we decided to do it now," he said.