The Company Doe case, being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, appeals the secret proceedings that marked the first legal challenge to SaferProducts.gov, a database started in 2011 by the CPSC to allow consumers, child-service providers, health-care professionals, government officials, and public-safety organizations to file publicly searchable reports about potentially dangerous products.
Before the CPSC posts any report, it is required by law to notify manufacturers and give them a chance to respond. If information submitted is shown to be false or misleading, the report must be corrected in order to appear online, and companies are permitted to post their own responses adjacent to any consumer complaints about their product. The process takes up to 20 business days before anything is made public. This built-in requirement helps ensure that incorrect information is not posted. The website’s easy-to-access, consumer-driven information is an important supplement to the CPSC’s recall process, which is often long.
SaferProducts.gov can help consumers by functioning as an early-warning system, says Pamela Gilbert, former executive director of the CPSC who now is a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca. “When I was at CPSC, one of the dilemmas we faced is that it takes time to work with a company to arrange a recall for a product causing injuries or deaths, and our staff would feel guilty during the time period when that product was still on out on the market yet the public had no idea there was anything wrong with it, and by law we couldn’t warn them not to buy it,” she said.
Thanks to SaferProducts.gov, safety-related complaints that the CPSC receives can now be shared with the public, providing important information consumers can use to protect themselves. But Gilbert is among those who fears that the outcome of the Company Doe case could hurt consumers by prompting a flood of similar legal challenges from other companies trying to prevent public posting of negative reports about their products.