The Department of Justice and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) jointly announced late last month that Black & Decker Inc. has agreed to pay a $1.575 million penalty to settle allegations that it knowingly violated the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) with respect to cordless electric lawnmowers that started spontaneously and that continued to operate after consumers released the lawnmower handles and removed the safety keys. Black & Decker has also agreed to establish and maintain a compliance program with internal recordkeeping and monitoring systems to keep track of information about product safety hazards. The settlement agreement is awaiting judicial approval.
Black & Decker has previously paid four civil penalties relating to Black & Decker's untimely reporting of defects and risks presented by other Black & Decker products.
"Not for the first time, Black & Decker held back critical information from the public about the safety of one of its products," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department's Civil Division. "The Department of Justice will continue to protect the public against companies that put profits over safety."
"Black & Decker's persistent inability to follow these vital product safety reporting laws calls into question their commitment to the safety of their customers," said Chairman Elliot F. Kaye of the CPSC. "They have a lot of work to do to earn back the public's trust. Companies are required to report potential product hazards and risks to CPSC on a timely basis. That means within 24 hours, not months or years as in Black & Decker's case."
The complaint relates to cordless lawnmowers manufactured and sold by Black & Decker from 1995 to 2006. According to the complaint, in as early as November 1998, Black & Decker started receiving reports that its cordless electric lawnmowers continued to run even after a user released the lawnmower's handle and removed the safety key, referred to as a continuous-run defect. A second defect involved lawnmowers that unexpectedly started even though the handle was released and the safety key removed, referred to as a spontaneous ignition defect.
The United States alleged that between 1998 and 2009, Black & Decker received more than 100 complaints regarding the continuous-run or spontaneous ignition defects. Dozens of these complaints specifically reported that the lawnmower continued to run or exhibited spontaneous ignition after the lawnmower's handle was released and the safety key was removed. The United States further alleged that, after consulting an outside expert, the company knew in 2004 that the lawnmowers could continue to run even if a user released the handle and removed the safety key. Despite knowledge of all of this information, Black & Decker failed to report to the CPSC until early 2009, even though federal law requires "immediate reporting."
The complaint further notes that at least two consumers informed Black & Decker that the lawnmower's blades started unexpectedly while the consumer cleaned them, resulting in injury. The complaint states that in one case, the lawnmower continued to run, with the handle released and without the safety key, for several hours while the consumer sought treatment in a hospital emergency room for injury to the consumer's hand, and after fire department personnel arrived and removed the blade.
In addition to the civil penalty, Black & Decker agreed to be bound by a consent decree of permanent injunction that prohibits the company from committing future violations of the CPSA. The consent decree requires that Black & Decker continue to implement and maintain a robust compliance program that ensures timely, truthful, complete and accurate reporting to the CPSC as required by law. In addition Black & Decker is subject to liquidated damages for each day the company is not in compliance with the consent decree.
The government is represented by former Trial Attorney Dan Baeza of the Civil Division's Consumer Protection Branch, with the assistance of Patricia Vieira of the CPSC's Office of the General Counsel.
In agreeing to settle this matter, Black & Decker has not admitted that it knowingly violated the CPSA.