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

    Recalled Vornado VH101 Personal Vortex Heater Source: CSPC

    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.”

    More on Space Heaters and Safety

    The company first announced the recall of 350,000 of its Vornado VH101 Personal Vortex electric space heaters in April 2018 because they can overheat, posing a fire danger. At the time, several incidents of the heaters catching fire had been reported but no deaths. 

    Four months later, the Vornado reannounced the recall after the company confirmed that a 90-year-old Minnesota man had died in a December 2017 fire linked to the recalled model. Federal law requires companies to report hazardous products in a timely fashion regardless of whether they result in dire consequences. The CPSC estimates that portable heaters are involved in about 1,700 fires per year, resulting in about 80 deaths and 160 injuries annually.

    The VH101 space heaters, which came in a number of bright colors, were sold at many big-box stores and online retailers between August 2009 and March 2018 for about $30. Consumer Reports did not test the recalled model but has tested other Vornado space heaters, which often fare well in our tests.

    Read our special report, “When Recalls Fail,” to find out why many harmful products remain in homes and stores, and how to protect yourself and your family against faulty consumer goods.

    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.”

    Mary H.J. Farrell

    Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.