Ten Milestones in Consumer Safety

Los Angeles – Over and over again this past century, corporations that resist making their products safer for consumers – or health insurers that unfairly delay or deny treatment – finally relent when hit with a lawsuit. By holding corporations accountable for placing profits before public safety, consumer attorneys have been responsible for numerous strides in consumer protection. Far from frivolous, these cases have saved countless lives, prompting corporations to take deadly products off the market and alert the public to hidden dangers in others.

For every “outrageous” lawsuit tort reformers flaunt to promote corporate interests, a thousand other cases show the necessity of the civil justice system in protecting consumers’ rights. The following are 10 striking examples of how consumer attorneys have made a difference.

HMOs: Litigation that holds HMOs accountable for their profit-driven coverage decisions gives consumers much-needed leverage against health insurers’ abuses. Thirty states, including California, now have either implemented an independent review system to evaluate health plans’ coverage decisions or have passed legislation creating one, and recent California legislation also allows patients to sue health insurers that unfairly change, delay or deny treatment. Consumer attorneys have been at the forefront of these efforts to empower patients.

Children’s Aspirin: Although physicians and manufacturers have known since the early 1960s about the relationship between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome, which causes severe neurological damage to children, warnings on packaging did not appear until several “failure to warn” suits were brought on behalf of affected children. As a result of the litigation, FDA now requires a warning.

Dalkon Shield IUD: Eight punitive damage awards led the A.H. Robins Co. to recall the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device (IUD). Evidence showed that Robins knew its IUD was associated with a high rate of pelvic inflammatory disease and septic abortion, that it lied to doctors about the IUD’s safety, and that it had stopped or kept secret studies on the device when the findings were unfavorable.

Asbestos: Lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers resulted in a ruling that holds manufacturers strictly liable for failing to adequately warn workers that asbestos could cause terminal illnesses. Manufacturers, according to company documents uncovered in litigation, had known about the dangers of inhaling asbestos as early as the 1930s and had failed to test asbestos to determine its effect on workers, even though they had a duty to do so. That deliberate failure put about 20 million Americans who have been occupationally exposed to asbestos at risk, hundreds of thousands of whom are expected to die from asbestos-induced cancer.

Ford Pintos:
A 13-year-old boy was severely burned when the gas tank in his aunt’s Ford Pinto exploded in a rear-end collision. In the lawsuit brought on his behalf, evidence showed that Ford managers knew that the design of the Pinto’s gas tank was defective, making the tank prone to explode in even minor rear-end collisions. An internal memo detailed the risk, but managers decided against spending the $4 to $8 per car to redesign the gas tank. It was only after this lawsuit and several others like it – which increased the cost of a human life to Ford – that the problem was either fixed or the Pinto was taken off the road.

DES: A form of synthetic estrogen widely prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s, DES affected many of the daughters born to those women, causing cancer, infertility and other complications. The lawsuits that resulted from the damage caused by DES helped raise awareness about the problems associated with the drug, provided compensation to the victims and has led to the development of safer drugs.

Flammable Pajamas: It took a sizable jury verdict for a manufacturer of children’s pajamas to take its highly flammable flannelette sleepwear off the market, even though the company, which had several other claims filed against it by injured consumers, had known about the danger. In upholding the jury award, the court noted that pajamas made of newsprint burned only slightly faster than the company’s untreated flannelette pajamas.

Toxic Shock Syndrome: In a lawsuit in which the court said the consumer attorneys’ efforts “literally changed an industry,” Playtex voluntarily stopped selling tampons linked to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). That move came after a jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages to the family of a woman who died after using the company’s super-absorbent tampons. After the verdict, Playtex also strengthened its warnings on its other products about the association between tampons and TSS and began a program to alert the public about the dangers of TSS.

Bjork-Shiley Heart Valves: Lawsuits led Pfizer in 1986 to stop selling its Bjork-Shiley heart valve, which was prone to fracture, usually with fatal results. Litigation showed that Pfizer knew about the problem, but did not notify the thousands of users nor the FDA. The company later consented to set aside $375 million for research on detecting cracks in implanted valves, surgery to replace defective ones, and compensation of sufferers.

Crib Defect Notification: Although Bassett Furniture Co. stopped producing a defective crib associated with the death of nine children, the company did not adequately notify crib owners. Bassett sent modification kits to stores instead of to consumers, and had refused a demand by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a national press release, for which it was fined. A jury awarded the parents of a baby hanged to death in her crib compensatory and punitive damages, a verdict that spurred the company into speeding up the recall and public notice to prevent more infant deaths.

Media Contacts:
Amanda Gazlay, Executive Director, Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles,
Carol Hemingway, Hemingway Media Group