Vornado's $7.5 Million Fine for Failing to Report a Deadly Space Heater Safety Defect Seen as Too Lenient
The company's personal-sized heaters were linked to one death before finally being recalled in 2018
A fine of $7.5 million may seem stiff. But when the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced last week that it had negotiated that amount with Vornado Air for allegedly failing to report a space heater safety defect that led to a man’s death, several of the agency’s commissioners said the fine amounted to a mere slap on the wrist for the company. Some of these officials took office after negotiations for the settlement began several years ago.
The CPSC “approved a woefully inadequate settlement with Vornado Air regarding some of the most serious charges I have seen during my time as a commissioner,” said Commissioner Peter Feldman, who opposed approval of the settlement agreement proposed by career CPSC staff. According to Feldman, “the company’s conduct included failing—not for the first time—to report a serious fire hazard arising from its space heaters.”
He continued, “Had the firm made a timely report, as it is required to do under federal law, it is possible that the gruesome death of a 90-year-old man, reported to be a World War II veteran living in an assisted living facility, could have been avoided.”
While the public does not have access to the same information as the CPSC, it’s apparent that at least some commissioners believe Vornado knew about the hazard as early as 2014 and did not report it in a timely fashion.
We reached out to Vornado for comment but got no response by the time this article was posted.
CPSC Chair Alex Hoehn-Saric and Commissioner Richard Trumka, who both voted to approve the agency’s settlement, also took issue with the amount of the fine. “For more than three years after Vornado learned that its heaters were susceptible to fire, the company stayed silent and did not reveal the risks to CPSC or to the consumers who had purchased the product,” Hoehn-Saric said in a statement, adding that “this death was avoidable.”
While calling the settlement “a meaningful step,” Trumka, in his statement, called on the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of the company and several of its leaders. "We want to let companies know that we’re back in business on civil penalties," he said in an interview. "We’re using every tool at our disposal."
“The evidence collected by CPSC staff indicates that Vornado knew just how dangerous their product was in 2014 and chose to hide it from the public and from CPSC,” he wrote, adding that “going forward, no company that behaves as Vornado has should expect to get away with a $7.5 million fine. As a new commission, we must seek penalties that are high enough to deter bad actors in the first place, and we will reject penalties that can be written off as a cost of business.”
"Vornado’s alleged conduct is appalling,” says William Wallace, CR’s associate director of safety policy. “It’s critical for the CPSC to hold Vornado accountable—and this settlement is a step in the right direction—but the fine should be much higher, and the Justice Department should conduct a criminal investigation of the company and its executives.”
“People must be able to trust that the products they buy for themselves and their families are safe, and deterring bad actors is a key part of the equation,” Wallace continued. “While the CPSC’s penalties in this case are much too low, they apparently reflect a lax approach to enforcement from several years ago when this case started. We’re glad the CPSC’s current commissioners are saying they will be much more aggressive in the future, and look forward to seeing their new approach result in tougher penalties.”
Space Heater Safety Tips
If you need to depend on a space heater for comfort, there are a few safety tips to follow.
- Make sure to keep flammable materials at least 3 feet away.
- Always plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet and never into a power strip, to prevent overloading and causing a fire.
- Do not leave space heaters running unattended, including at night when you are sleeping.
- You can find more tips in our article “How to Be Sure You’re Using Your Space Heater Safely.”