If you are the parent of a young child, or, perhaps a personal injury lawyer, you’ve probably by now heard of the massive recall involving Fisher-Price Rock ‘N Play sleepers.
These inclined sleepers were for years marketed as a godsend for parents of colicky infants. Nearly 4.7 million of Rock ‘N Plays were sold over the last decade with the promise of a better night’s sleep, especially for babies with acid reflux.
The key to the product’s allure: a 30-degree seat angle that made it like a mini recliner for your little one — a feature no other bassinet on the market could tout.
Now, we know that incline also made it a death trap for some babies.
Fisher-Price recalled the Rock ‘N Play in April after a Consumer Reports investigation uncovered 32 infant deaths that were tied to the sleeper.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which helped coordinate the recall, said the deaths occurred after the infants had turned over while unrestrained or “under other circumstances.”
That alone is cause for grave concern. But an article in the Washington Post last week revealed a set of circumstances that has caused an even greater stir in online forums and parenting circles.
According to the Post’s Todd C. Frankel:
“…Fisher-Price developed its revolutionary product based on faulty beliefs about infant sleep, with no clinical research into whether it was safe, and, rather than seeking the advice of pediatricians, consulted just a single doctor . . . In fact, the first time Fisher-Price hired a pediatrician to evaluate the Rock ‘n Play was eight years later, as part of the company’s defense in a product liability lawsuit, according to records.”
Frankel, a former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, weaves extensive interviews and legal research to paint a disturbing picture of a trusted company that ignored red flags and proven safe sleep standards to sell the popular product — and continued to do so, even as babies were dying.
Notably, Frankel is the father of two boys, one of whom had used a Rock ‘N Play until he started sitting up in the rocker and almost pulled it over. (This is according to Frankel’s wife, who in a Facebook post noted the child was well under the seat’s 25 pound weight limit at the time.)
The reactions to Frankel’s reporting are what you’d expect. Outrage. Fear. Lots of questions.
“We took for granted that it had been certified as safe.”
“Terrifying how no research or testing was done before it was brought to the baby market.”
“So scary. I always felt like I was the only mom in my mom circles that DIDN’T own one.”
Count us among those who find this situation incredibly disturbing.
The promise of sound sleep
Now, as many people will point out, there is no good substitute for direct supervision of a child, especially a sleeping infant.
In 2017, nearly 3,600 babies died in the United States from unexplained sleep situations, making SIDS (sudden unexpected infant deaths) and other accidental sleep-related injuries a leading cause of death in babies under age 1.
But, at the end of the day, parents need to sleep too. And they rely on these products to help them do so without worry.
Further, we do know how to make infant sleep safer, thanks the Back to Sleep campaign from the mid-1990s, and boatloads of research and education since then.
The American Academy of Pediatrics tells parents that babies should sleep face-up in an empty crib or bassinet, ideally in the same room as the adults for the first year. And babies should avoid long periods of sleep in inclined devices such as car seats or infant swings. These steps are taken to avoid both SIDS and accidental suffocation or positional asphyxia, in which the child’s airway is compromised.
So how did a sleeper with a built in incline end up on the market? One that promised on its box that “Baby can sleep at a comfortable incline all night long!”?
(It’s worth noting here that the Rock ‘N Play is only the most well-known culprit. Two weeks after the Fisher-Price recall, another 700,000 Kids II inclined sleepers were recalled in relation to five more deaths.)
As Frankel points out, the designers of the Rock ‘N Play relied upon an almost decade’s old piece of medical advice — the belief, since refuted, that an elevated head position can help with acid reflux — and the cursory research of one family doctor who was a paid consultant for the company.
And, it seems, they ignored everything else.
Meanwhile, government regulatory agencies did little to intercede.
It’s worth reading the article in full, rather than just our summary here. But we’d like to make two main points in relation to this recall and the discoveries in the Washington Post piece.
False sense of security
First, there is a belief among consumers that just because a product is on the shelves, it is safe. Products for children and babies, in particular, seem to carry this assumption.
But that is often not the case. Just take a look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall list, if you need a better (and gloomier) picture of this.
As Frankel notes, “the nation’s product safety system relies heavily on manufacturers — rather than regulators — to protect against dangers in new products.”
And the manufacturers, while surely concerned about their reputation, primarily exist to make money.
Safety regulations often lag behind actual, known hazards. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is required to write federal safety rules for infant products like highchairs and cribs, hasn’t yet issued guidelines for inclined sleepers.
So consumer protection groups are left to suss out threats and piece together commonalities among injuries and fatalities.
Thank goodness that occurred in this case, before even more babies were injured or killed. But it shouldn’t have to get that bad. These sleepers NEVER should have made it to stores, particularly in the way they were marketed. (It is notable that the same product has not been recalled in Canada, where in 2011 regulators pushed for reclassifying it as a “soother” versus a “sleeper”, according to the Consumer Reports article).
Second, we are reminded, yet again, of the importance of our tort system.
A lot of the substance in both the Consumer Reports piece and Frankel’s investigation comes from depositions that were taken as part of lawsuits filed over infant deaths in the Rock ‘N Play sleepers.
For instance, there was the 2013 death of a two-month-old in Hidalgo County, Texas, in which the child was found not breathing after a three-hour span overnight. Her head had tilted to the side and her chin rested on her shoulder, constricting her airway.
Or the 2014 close call in Georgia, where a 7-week-old was discovered cocked to the side, “blue and lifeless”, by his grandmother who was in the same room as him. He fortunately recovered.
The child’s grandmother, a lawyer, sued the company over that incident and has since taken on another case where a 5-month-old died in the product.
Each of these lawsuits represents a chance to make the injured families whole — recognizing, of course, that nothing can fully repair the emotional damage that comes from losing (or almost losing) a young child to a product that was assumed safe.
But these claims also serve a greater purpose, and it’s one that we have talked about before on this blog.
Picture a big ball of yarn. At the center is the truth.
Every time a product liability case is filed, we pull at the string, and get closer to the truth.
We learn about cut corners, and sometimes public deceit.
And hopefully, we get a dangerous product off the shelves, as occurred here. Because your child deserves sound AND safe sleep.
Products liability laws are in place to protect consumers from defective and dangerous products of all types, ranging from contaminated food items to prescription drugs that pose unacceptable health risks, and from toys to automobiles and industrial equipment. Proving that a design or manufacturing defect caused serious injury or a wrongful death is a critical aspect of many civil lawsuits, and it’s something we specialize in. Call or email us today to speak with a caring, dedicated lawyer about your case. We can help you achieve compensation AND will hold the company responsible for any harm — past or future.