Last month, baby toy maker Fisher-Price issued a recall of its Rock ‘n Play sleeper product after claims that the sleeper led to the deaths of 32 infants across the country. So far, 4.7 million sleeper units have been recalled, with consumers being offered a full refund. Now two federal class-action lawsuits have been filed against Fisher-Price and its parent company Mattel alleging dangerous and defective design and negligence.
A Dangerous Product & A Slow Recall Process
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lists the primary hazard of the Rock ‘n Play sleeper product as, “infants [rolling] from their back to their stomach or side while unrestrained, or under other circumstances.” The CPSC noted that following the product’s initial release in 2009, 10 infant deaths were reported between 2015 and 2018. After announcing that 10 babies had died since 2015, Fisher-Price issued a warning not to place infants with rollover capabilities in the sleepers. Since that warning, however, 32 total deaths related to the product have been reported, indicating that both Fisher-Price and Mattel were aware of the dangers posed by the product but did not attempt to remedy its safety defects.
On April 9, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to immediately recall the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper, claiming that the product does not meet the AAP’s recommendations for a safe sleep environment for any baby. According to the AAP, “infants should always sleep on their back, on a separate, flat and firm sleep surface without any bumpers or bedding.” The AAP further claimed that the device put infants at risk of rolling into an unsafe position, rendering them incapable of moving, and leading to suffocation or strangulation.
The popular product was officially recalled on April 12, 2019. However, upon official recall announcement, Mattel, continued to stand by the safety of the Rock ‘n Play sleeper. The parent company released a statement indicating that the reported deaths could be attributed to consumers using the sleeper “contrary to safety warnings and instructions”. Among a long list of warnings, Mattel and Fisher-Price instructed consumers to create a safe sleep environment for infants by:
- Always placing an infant to sleep on their back
- Not using the product after a child turns 3 months old or develops the ability to rollover
- Using the 3-point child harness
- Never adding blankets, pillows, stuffed toys, or other items to the sleeper
However, several of the reported deaths secondary to asphyxiation have allegedly occurred while consumers were using the product appropriately with infants under the age of 3 months.
Although the CPSC and Fisher-Price call for consumers to create a safe sleep environment for infants, in Canada, what constitutes a safe sleep environment is much stricter. In 2011, the Rock ‘n Play sleeper was reclassified as a “soother” in Canada following concerns brought up by Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Canadian Pediatric Society. Although the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper had been advertised as a sleeping accommodation, it failed to meet the Canadian regulations for cribs, cradles, and bassinets.
Class Action Lawsuits Allege Defective Design
Both class action lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court in Buffalo, the federal court where Fisher-Price is located.
One suit, filed by Cassandra Mulvey against Fisher Price and Mattel, claims the product’s marketing was “dangerously false and misleading, as the product is not safe for all-night or prolonged sleep for infants.” The lawsuit also claims the angle at which children would be resting in the sleeper “increases the infant’s risk of developing flat head (plagiocephaly) and twisted neck (torticollis) syndromes, conditions that often require babies to wear expensive head-molding helmets and undergo physical therapy.”
Another suit was filed by Samantha Drover-Mundy and Zachary Mundy, a couple in Delaware, after their 12-week-old daughter allegedly died after just a few minutes in a Rock ‘n Play sleeper back in September of 2018. In addition to causing their daughter’s death, the suit claims that “the Rock ‘n Play’s defective design also causes injuries…which require costly medical treatment and can cause life-long damage, including permanent deformities and developmental delays.” The Mundy’s also named Amazon.com (the vendor they purchased the product from) as a defendant.
The suits also claim that both Fisher-Price and Mattel disregarded the AAP’s recommendations as to appropriate infant sleep environments. Furthermore, they allege that the defendants lobbied the CPSC to let them avoid regulations that would have kept the product off the market.
How The Experts Can Weigh In
Because of the various disputes regarding product safety, product marketing, and proper product use, these class action suits could benefit from a range of experts who can parse out liability and causation.
In determining causation, experts in pediatrics, somnology (sleep medicine), biomechanics, and ergonomics (human factors) may all prove useful. Experts in pediatrics could potentially speak to what constitutes a proper and safe sleeping environment for infants between 0-3 months and beyond. Somnology experts, or sleep consultants, could speak to the general sleeping habits of infants and whether these are conducive to the product itself. Biomechanics experts could speak to how the infants’ injuries occurred while inside the product and perhaps how the injuries could have been prevented. Human factors experts can speak to what a reasonable individual would have seen, done, or perceived under the circumstances. This could apply to the parent’s expectations when placing the infant into the sleeper or to the child’s physical/mechanical response while inside the product.
In determining liability, experts in consumer product safety, product design and engineering, and product marketing could determine whether or not the plaintiffs’ claims regarding dangerous and defective design hold weight. Product safety experts can investigate whether the product was properly tested before its initial launch and analyze whether the product was safe as sold. Product design and engineering experts could analyze the sleeper’s design and determine whether it meets regulations for cribs, cradles, and bassinets. Product marketing experts could address whether the warning labels sufficiently detailed proper product use and enumerated all the possible risks, including infant death.