As a personal injury firm, we keep an eye on recent recalls issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Since several members of our team have kids, we look extra-carefully at instances where children's products are in the spotlight. After all, it's up to parents to safeguard their little ones; children seem almost supernaturally prone to injury, and nobody wants faulty merchandise adding an extra risk of harm.
One item that recently surfaced in recalls is a motorized infant seat from Fisher-Price. Babies--through no fault of their own--can't really act in self-preservation, so when equipment meant to soothe and entertain them might injure them instead, we feel it's important to let parents know--and to say a few words to the company itself about keeping a better eye on its products.
Which Products Are Affected?
The recall is for Soothing Motions Seats with model numbers CMR35, CMR36, CMR37, and DYH22 and Smart Connect Soothing Motions Seats with model number CMR39 (this model's functions can apparently be remotely controlled from a phone). The seat's model number can be found on the underside of its motor housing. Here's a picture to help distinguish the models from one another:
The seat bounces and sways multi-directionally, vibrates, plays music and nature sounds, and has an overhead mobile for visual stimulation. Overall, it sounds like a pretty sweet ride for a baby...except for one serious problem.
What's Wrong With The Product?
According to the CPSC, the motors that drive the Soothing Motions Seats' bouncing and swaying have a chance of overheating. Obviously, this presents a serious risk to any seat occupants, who by their nature are not in a position to escape such a problem. The agency has received 36 reports of overheating, including one instance where a motor actually caught fire, but the flame was contained within the unit's housing.
Who Makes This Product?
The Soothing Motions Seat is imported to the US and distributed by the New York company Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel Inc. and a big name in the "stuff for babies" market. It is actually manufactured at and shipped from an unspecified location in China.
How Widespread is the Problem?
The recall affects roughly 63,000 units sold throughout the U.S. and another 2,000 in Canada. According to the CPSC website, the units were sold at several brick-and-mortar chains including Target, BuybuyBaby, Walmart, Toys R Us, and many other stores. It was also sold through Amazon and many other online retailers.
The good news is that no injuries have so far been reported. Now that Fisher-Price has put out a voluntary Fast Track recall in cooperation with the CPSC, perhaps they can be avoided entirely. However, the nationwide distribution of tens of thousands of these chairs still means there's significant risk; unless every one of them can be recovered and accounted for (no recall has ever managed 100% success with every unit returned), it's still possible that tragedy could strike.
No single unit is guaranteed to have the overheating problems cited in the 36 reported cases, but it's almost certain all the models were assembled on a line using identical parts and processes. There could have been other circumstances that caused overheating--chair was left on too long, placed somewhere with poor ventilation--but the urgency of the recall suggests the company suspects manufacturing defects.
What Should Owners of the Product Do?
The remedy proposed by Fisher-Price and the CPSC is pretty much the standard formula when there is a risk of external physical injury from a product. Consumers to immediately cease using the recalled seats and contact Fisher-Price for a full refund.
Fisher-Price's customer service hotline can be reached at (800) 432-5437 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. Customers can also go online to Mattel's website (this page specifically) and select the recall about the Soothing Motions Seats for more information and a guide on how to proceed.
What This Means
Without any reported injuries, this is mostly a matter of giving the heads-up to as many people as possible to achieve as complete a recall as can be managed. However, there's also a lesson here for Fisher-Price and its parent company Mattel regarding their overseas partnerships.
It's a normal part of commerce to reduce overhead by as much as possible (within certain ethical boundaries) to keep the bottom line robust. That's not an indictment of capitalism, it's just a recognition of how the system's gears turn: Buy low, sell high. To that end, companies outsource elements of their business--materials, manufacturing--all the time, which often means contracting with groups in countries that have "relaxed" regulations on industrial practices.
I'm not trying to generalize about every Chinese factory, but investigations have shown time and again that manufacturing in Asia is plagued by cut corners and substandard production in order to stay competitive for foreign contracts. If Company A can produce baby-seat motors for five dollars apiece and Company B can make them for $4.98, Company B is almost certain to be chosen. Two cents per unit may not sound like much, but multiply that by thousands--millions--of units and its value on a macro scale becomes more clear. That cost difference is fairly generous, too; competition between manufacturers is often so tight that the price per unit only differs by a few fractions of a cent.
Importing companies want those savings, but realistically they have to come from somewhere. Like many American importers, Fisher-Price might have benefited from some careful auditing of their foreign partners. Those per-unit pennies might have been saved by using poor wiring insulation, ineffective heat dispersants, or faulty resistors, any of which might have contributed to the overheating motor housing. I'm only speculating of course, but the described issue certainly sounds like a manufacturing defect.
If (God forbid) any injuries do occur from these overheating/fire incidents, the factories overseas will probably be beyond the reach of U.S. law. However, stream of commerce theory says that "an entity that participates in placing a defective product in the general marketplace is strictly liable for harm caused by the product." Fisher-Price may not have built the chairs in-house, but by virtue of being the ones to advertise them for domestic sale and ship them to the homes of American consumers, they may be held strictly liable in a court of law. The same is true of other American importers who casually overlook questionable partner practices in order to protect profits: The justice system will see to it that anyone who is injured by their products' wonky parts is afforded a chance at remedy.