Hazardous Bedding for Children

They are "sanctuaries." They are peaceful, secure, comforting places—a baby's crib and play pen.

bedding New parents and experienced grandparents take photographs of their newborns and grandchildren lying in their crib, crawling in their crib, pulling themselves up, and even jumping around in cribs and play pens. What a wonderfully delightful time in a child's life, and in the lives of her family! Well, it is for most. But, some infants and children will die every year in this country in these "sanctuaries." Needless and, of course, tragic deaths. It's an untold story. One that has only partly been addressed by very weak government and industry standards. It's a story that needs to be told; it involves safety hazards that must be addressed.

To appreciate the hazards associated with children's bedding and their play environment, let's consider just one of the hundreds of these tragedies every year.

In September of 1991, Lindsay Jean was a beautiful eight and one-half month old girl. She was the bright light of her entire family. An angel.  Lindsay's life ended one Sunday afternoon when she became entangled with a long decorative ribbon attached to the beautiful lace canopy attached to her crib. She never had a chance.

Likewise, Lindsay's folks never had a chance. They shopped for Lindsay's canopy at a well known local infant furniture store, and bought the canopy which had been manufactured by a small infant bedding company. Litigation revealed that no one, from the manufacturer to the retailer, gave any thought to the hazard posed by this canopy ribbon measuring two feet in length. Yet, it became a literal noose, strangling this child. How could companies manufacturing and selling infant bedding let this happen? Tragically, it happened because of pure ignorance. And, it still happens every day. A search of most infant/child furniture stores will confirm how insensitive or how uneducated most merchants are to strangulation hazards.

All across this country, thousands of small specialty shops and large department stores display and sell "cute," "adorable," "lovely," and "precious" crib bedding and crib and play pen toys. And, unbelievably, the design and sale of these items are without any mandatory safety regulation.

The absence of true government or industry control over infant/child strangulation hazards is astonishing in light of the published data concerning this national epidemic. In 1976, a "voluntary" toy safety standard was promulgated, and then adopted the following year by ANSI as a voluntary standard calling for limiting string lengths to no less than 12 inches. Nevertheless, these standards are neither mandatory nor adequate. Just two months ago, ASTM proposed a new voluntary standard to address strangulation and to revise the earlier ANSI standard so that strings can never be longer than 7 inches. These two voluntary standards emanate from industry and government knowledge of the following research:

  • 1981
    The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) compiled and analyzed 298 strangulation incidents, resulting in 261 deaths. Rutherford, et al., issued a "Special Report -- Accidental Strangulations (Ligature) of Children Less Than 5 Years of Age" -- analyzing nearly 300 cases. This study dealt with products such as: drapery and blind cords, toys, bedding, play equipment and bibs. The authors concluded that kids ages 9 to 12 months of age were at greatest risk.
  • 1986
    The CPSC and the American Window Covering Manufacturers Associates issued warnings about the danger of strangulation from pull cords attached to window blinds. yet, neither the industry nor the CPSC promulgated a mandatory safety standard for product design.
  • 1986
    ASTM F963-86 adopts the Standard for Toy Safety first issued in 1976. ASTM did not change the cord length criteria. ASTM is, of course, merely a "voluntary" industry standard.
  • 1987
    CPSC issued Crib Toy Strangulation reports analyzing 49 crib toy incidents with 30 deaths. The report stated that a cord with a length greater than the circumference of a child's neck is long enough to cause strangulation -- and constitutes a product hazard. The circumference of a young child's neck is in the range of 7 inches.
  • 1987 - 1993
    The CPSC "began" work on mandatory standards to address crib toy strangulations.
  • 1994
    The Window Covering Safety Council issued a report stating that 140 children have died since 1981 -- one per month -- from window cover cords.

Despite over twenty years of "analyzing" and reporting about infant/child strangulation hazards, neither the government nor the infant toy and bedding industry has adopted a mandatory design criteria to eradicate this national tragedy. What's left to force the industry to develop safe designs to eliminate strangulation hazards? The common law tort system!

Under theories of products liability, all suppliers of a defective product in the chain of distribution, including retailers, designers, manufacturers, part makers, assemblers, owners, sellers, lessors, or any other relevant category, are potentially liable to the ultimate user injured by the defect. This rule of law ensures the availability of compensation to the injured party, and helps place the burden of such injury on parties who, unlike the consumer, have a better opportunity to control the defect or spread its costs through pricing. In the field of product safety of children's toys and bedding, a problem may arise when the manufacturer is an individual who simply makes bedding on an "order by order basis" and has literally no assets to compensate the families of infants who die because of their neglect or product's defect. Thus, the consumer must look to the retailer who, from both a financial stance and from its position of superior knowledge, should be held responsible for harm caused by the design defect causing strangulation. That conclusion, however, runs contrary to the traditional rules of law—and seriously influences retailers' outlook on safety.

In the ordinary case, a retailer, who simply sells a product made by another, and who may be legally liable to the consumer for the sale of a defective product, is permitted to recover over against the manufacturer pursuant to common law indemnity. As a result, retailers often ignore safety hazards in the products they sell. But, to do so, is to ignore the fact that just because a retailer serves as a conduit for the sale of these deadly products does not necessarily permit them to escape financial responsibility. First, it may very well be true that the manufacturer is judgment-proof, thereby making it impossible to obtain indemnity. Second, and more importantly from the standpoint of "motivating" the retailer to minimize the sale of defective products, it is generally true that indemnification is not appropriate if the retailer knew about the defect or should have discovered the actual defect and had a fair opportunity to correct or prevent the defect. Thus, retailers must be ever vigilant to identify hazards of strangulation and rectify these safety risks before they sell these innocent looking products to consumers.

Who is Responsible?

Despite the government and child bedding and toy industries' knowledge of hundreds of infant/child strangulation deaths over the past fifteen years, because of unnecessarily long cords, strings, and ribbons, neither the CPSC nor these industries have developed and adopted mandatory safety criteria. The industry is insufficiently organized to mount such an effort and the government agency is apparently too caught up in individual accident analysis and political turnover to tackle this horrendous national crisis. There needs to be a mandate to design out hazardous toys and bedding because of unsafe features that pose a serious risk of strangulation. Lawsuits are not the answer, because they come after someone has lost a child or a grandchild. And, in this instance the fear of a lawsuit is not a great motivator because retailers believe they are insulated from liability and the small cottage industry that makes these products is often judgment-proof. Thus, we as consumers must aggressively demand safety of the industry and the retailers associations, if we are to eliminate this annual slaughter of infants and children.

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