AARP’s brief asks a court to protect public access to information in the Consumer Product Safety Commission complaint database.
Following the recall of 20 million hazardous toys in 2008, Congress passed a law to better inform consumers of potentially hazardous products. In 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began maintaining a publicly accessible electronic database alerting consumers to potential dangers and allowing researchers to focus efforts to evaluate the safety of products much earlier than they otherwise could.
A few months later, a company calling itself “Company Doe” sued the CPSC to keep a complaint about one of its products out of the database. A federal district court granted Company Doe’s motion to proceed under seal. Three consumer organizations (Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union) intervened in the case and objected to the seal. In 2012, the court denied the consumer groups’ motion to lift the seal, and after a full, closed-door trial, exonerated Company Doe’s product, in an opinion containing significant redactions, including key facts and expert opinions.
The CPSC and Company Doe reached a settlement, and the CPSC did not appeal. The consumer groups nevertheless appealed the court’s secrecy orders. Company Doe seeks to dismiss the appeal arguing mootness because the CPSC did not appeal.
AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief. The brief reviews the importance of public databases in empowering knowledgeable and proactive consumers, encouraging business competition, and assisting regulators in identifying problems and trends in a timely manner so as to prevent additional harm.
AARP’s brief provides examples of public complaint databases that have been proven effective in improving product quality and safety and enhancing regulatory effectiveness. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s safercar.gov spurred automobile manufacturers to build safer cars in order to compete for customers and is credited with helping identify problems with Firestone tires that caused over 800 casualties, including 271 deaths. The Food and Drug Administration’s med watch database alerted regulators to hidden dangers of medications that have not, and likely cannot be detected during small clinical trials. The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel database helps law enforcement agencies target transitory fraud schemes that would be impossible to detect without the consumer reports. Nursing home quality has improved substantially as a result of the information provided through Nursing Home Compare, maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Consumer complaints about financial products and services are being addressed more efficiently since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau began posting complaints online,
What’s at Stake
Public databases improve consumer and regulator access to information, enabling consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace, focusing regulatory enforcement efforts, and driving improved quality and product safety. Protecting the integrity of such databases is essential to efficient and effective protection for consumers.
Company Doe v. Public Citizen is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.