Odds are, if you sell 1 million of anything, something bad is bound to happen from time to time.



In the case of Simplicity Inc. of Reading, PA, bad barely begins to describe the mountain of legal trouble and negative PR the company finds stacking up against it.



Triggered by a Chicago Tribune investigation, Simplicity, in tandem with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, on Sept. 21 announced the voluntary recall of approximately 1 million wooden cribs, made in China. It was the fourth recall Simplicity has issued for product failures of its cribs in just over two years.



The first recall, announced on May 3, 2005, involved about 575 cribs in which it was determined that the white paint could chip, posing a choking hazard for children.



The second recall, announced Dec. 21, 2005, involved about 104,000 of Simplicity’s top selling Aspen 3-in-1 cribs sold under the Graco trademark. The recall was issued following 14 reports of screws becoming loose on the mattress support, including eight reports of children becoming entrapped by the mattress. In one of those entrapment instances, a child reportedly turned blue.



On Feb. 8, 2006, the CPSC issued a safety alert a month after a Myrtle Creek, OR, infant suffocated to death in an Aspen 3-in-1 crib. The CPSC said two of the mattress support slats came out of the recalled crib, allowing the child to become entrapped between the mattress and the footboard of the crib. Soon after, the CPSC added Simplicity cribs to its list of “Most Wanted” recalled products.



Simplicity and the CPSC issued the third recall, involving about 40,000 Nursery-in-a-Box cribs, on June 6, 2007. The CPSC said the assembly instructions provided with the cribs incorrectly directed consumers to attach the crib’s drop side upside down. The recall was based on a single, non-injurious incident in which a crib’s drop side, installed upside down, fell from its upright position causing the metal locking pins to become dislodged.



The second and third recalls turned out to be harbingers for the massive Sept. 21 recall. Suddenly, the number of infant deaths associated with the cribs climbed to three, including one incident in which the drop side was installed upside down. In addition, CPSC said it was aware of seven infant entrapments and 55 other incidents involving Simplicity cribs.



Recall Fall-Out



In issuing the Sept. 21 recall, the CPSC urged consumers to “check to see if the drop-side is installed right side up” and “check to see if the crib contains the recalled hardware.” In the event consumers found the drop-side to be installed upside down or discovered faulty hardware, they were told to “stop using the crib immediately.” In the event consumers discovered they had the older, recalled hardware, they were instructed to contact Simplicity for free replacement hardware.



Consumer watchdog groups have blasted the CPSC for its handling of the Simplicity cribs recall. They question why CPSC did not do a better job of investigating earlier complaints, which could have led to a broader recall much earlier. They also wonder why the CPSC is not forcing Simplicity to offer consumers full refunds for their cribs. The condemnation has been exacerbated by a lengthy list of other highly publicized recalls of products made in China, most notably by Mattel for children’s toys coated with lead paint.



Meanwhile, Simplicity is becoming the target of product liability lawsuits that could ultimately cost the company tens of millions of dollars or more.



On its now very product-depleted Web site (www.simplicityforchildren.com), Simplicity insists that its products are safe.



“All Simplicity for Children products are designed, engineered and tested in the USA. Simplicity’s designers, engineers and technicians are committed to product safety and product integrity.” Simplicity’s Web site also notes that each of its products is approved by independent testing labs and is certified by the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Assn. “We meet or exceed every safety requirement published.”



As a kicker, the company implies that consumers are largely to blame for its product failures. “(O)nce our products leave our hands, parents need to be knowledgeable, proactive and careful.”



No doubt, parents shoulder the ultimate responsibility for safeguarding a child’s well being. They must always be mindful of a child’s surroundings, and anticipate and remove potential pitfalls that might cause harm.



That said, Simplicity, which is clearly losing the PR battle, will have a tough time explaining in court how in spite of all of its rigorous testing, it managed to market products with, inherently in some cases, faulty instructions and hardware that time and time again failed to perform.



I hope all wood product manufacturers, especially those who offshore products, are taking note.

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