Two months ago I wrote about “America’s defective products crisis,” but new information, as well as products liability developments since my last blog, have made it clear the problem is bigger than I anticipated. In the past two months alone, millions of additional motor vehicles and dozens of other defective products have been recalled for public safety reasons. GM is in survival mode, playing the blame game at Congressional hearings, in Grand Jury proceedings, and in dozens of far-reaching and legally challenging lawsuits.
But while GM pleads for understanding and points fingers, consumers and fellow drivers like you and me are left wondering if it is safe to get back behind the wheel. GM has managed to fix only a couple hundred thousand faulty vehicles, while they and other manufacturers have added millions to the recall list. We consumers are clearly losing the defective motor vehicle battle.
The GM scandal will probably result in another GM bankruptcy. There will be threats of criminal penalties, but they will be just that: threats. Our nation simply doesn’t have a track record for making big businesses accept criminal responsibility, and the current maximum civil penalty of just $35 million is little more than an economic nuisance for a company its size. More likely, the GM ignition switch defect scandal will go down in history as one of the worst examples of a corporate giant getting away with murder for years before again going bankrupt.
It seems Americans have become unwilling, unknowing participants in a series of after market laboratory tests. Rather than paying for proper testing in controlled studies prior to sale, the manufacturers unleash questionable products on consumers, keeping their fingers crossed that no one is injured or sickened or that no damage occurs to personal property. Usually the public only hears about these defects when they make the evening news, at which point quiet settlements are reached. It’s a gamble, and the fact manufacturers are willing to take it says a great deal about how much money is at stake.
We are a nation of smart consumers who know that there is no avoiding an occasional disappointing product. We understand that the products we purchase are going to wear out, break, malfunction, or even just disappoint. But too many are defective from the moment they are sold. What do we do when a supposedly harmless product hurts a user or makes them sick? How bad and numerous do the injuries have to be for the product to be labeled dangerous? And at what point does a recall become imperative? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not what we as consumers want to hear. The laws requiring corporations to act reasonably are unwieldy. The under-resourced agencies charged with their interpretation lack the authority to order recalls, except in the most egregious situations. Quite simply, our system for evaluating bad products is broken.
The question, then, is what can consumers do about this crisis? Write to your Congressman or Congresswoman, and demand change. Urge them to vote pro-consumer while setting higher standards for big businesses. The “GROW AMERICA Act” calls for stiffer penalties for the most outrageous, repeat transgressors like GM. Next, demand a system in which manufacturers pay for improved enforcement proceedings and enhanced pre- and post-market regulatory oversight. Then raise your consumer protection expectations: complaints must be simplified, and communication between consumers, companies, and the government must be improved. Finally, demand answers. How could such long-running mismanagement happen? What can your Congressional leader do to ensure that the loopholes that permit such disasters are permanently closed?
Big business and their lobbies want you to believe everything is fine in America’s marketplace, but the facts show otherwise. The combined voices of American consumers can be louder and more powerful. It is time to stop playing politics and stop labeling products liability lawsuits as frivolous. Your safety and health are not frivolous! We need to continue to fight to make companies accountable for the products they unleash on consumers. Demand safe and healthy tested products as well as accountability when products fail, injure, or sicken consumers or damage property. Do not hesitate to report a defect; when enough complaints are reported, patterns emerge that allow officials to connect the dots and take appropriate action. Historically speaking, consumer safety only exists today because of people like you who maintained the highest expectations before the purchase, during a product’s lifetime, and following a product’s defect.
In my next blog: Silent Killers. Unlike automobiles that cause dramatic accident scenes that can be visually investigated, prescription drugs and medical devices are more enigmatic in their defectiveness. Pharmaceutical companies have become experts at manipulating the regulatory system, allowing the continued pedaling of bad drugs and faulty devices. They knowingly and intentionally violate food and drug laws, while smugly holding out their rich, profitable wrists for governmental slaps. New records are established every year for civil penalties these companies pay, and there is no end in sight. It’s a tough pill for consumers to swallow!