On November 9, 2009, Maclaren USA, the American subsidiary of the British manufacturer of umbrella strollers and other children’s products, “voluntarily” recalled about 1 million strollers because of fingertip lacerations and amputations. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, “The stroller’s hinge mechanism poses a fingertip amputation and laceration hazard to the child when the consumer is unfolding [or] opening the stroller.”
Maclaren says it received 15 reports of children placing their finger in the stroller’s hinge mechanism, resulting in 12 reports of fingertip amputations in the United States.
My last article focused on the purported “voluntary” aspect of the recall and questioned how Maclaren was gathering and maintaining reports of accidents and near-accidents. This article will focus on the manufacturer’s responsibility to identify and eliminate design defects so that injuries like these don’t happen. My next article will speak to what a parent who owns a recalled stroller should do.
Manufacturer’s Legal Duty. Under the law, a manufacturer is responsible for acting reasonably – or exercising "due care" – in designing, manufacturing and testing a product to make sure that the product is fit for a particular purpose. If there is an unsafe aspect to the product that results in injuries to the person using it, or someone close by, the manufacturer can be held responsible for the injuries on the basis of negligence, or for having breached express and implied warranties about a product’s fitness. A manufacturer must anticipate the environment in which its product will be used, taking into account the sophistication and knowledge of the operator or consumer, the location where a product will be used, and the foreseeable uses and even misuses to which the product may be placed. The manufacturer must design against reasonably foreseeable risks of injury in this context.
So, in the case of a children’s stroller, a manufacturer must anticipate that a child may place his or her hand or fingers on the stroller’s frame when a parent or caregiver is opening or closing the stroller. Just think of the mother with two or three children in tow, who is setting up or collapsing a stroller next to the family car in the parking lot at the mall. She has children to watch, bundles to handle, and traffic to look out for, all while she is opening and closing the stroller. There should be no possibility that the stroller’s hinge mechanism will allow a toddler’s finger to get in the way. Mom, dad, grandma or the babysitter cannot be held to the level of expertise of the design engineer and should not have to inspect the stroller to make sure that there are no areas where the child’s hands or fingers can be caught or pinched. We protect industrial workers by eliminating or covering exposed gears and moving parts on machinery; a stroller should be designed with no less concern for safety.
Manufacturer’s Design Responsibilities. Hazard and risk analysis has become a staple of mechanical engineering. When studying safety engineering, students learn the so-called "safety hierarchy" of design, which is intended to identify, and then eliminate or reduce the risk of injury from a hazard posed by a product.
The design engineer must identify hazards (such as a pinch point, where parts of a product can catch a part of the body and cause injury) and evaluate the chances of an injury occurring, and the severity of the injury.
Once a risk of injury has been identified, the design engineer should try to eliminate the risk entirely, by reconfiguring that part of the product. When it comes to a hinge mechanism into which little fingers can fit, perhaps the space is made larger so that fingers cannot be pinched when the hinge is opened and closed. Or, perhaps the space is made smaller so that a finger cannot possibly fit into the space.
If the risk of injury cannot be eliminated by a change in design, then the engineer should try to guard against the risk. A permanent, non-removable hinge cover might work in this instance.
If the risk of injury cannot be eliminated by a design change, or guarded against by a cover, then the designer may resort to warnings or instructions. There is a science to proper warnings and instructions. They must first alert the user with attention getting words that are commensurate to the hazard (such as DANGER in yellow against a black background, or WARNING in red and white, or CAUTION in orange and black). A proper warning should then alert the user to the hazard (such as "In-Running Rollers" or "Sharp Blade"). A proper warning should tell the user what to do or what not to do (like "Keep Hands Away from Opening") to avoid the hazard. And finally, a proper warning should tell the user the consequences if he or she disregards the warning (for example, "Placing Hands in Vicinity of In-Running Rollers May Result in Amputation or Other Serious Injury").
Legalistic warnings and instructions may give the manufacturer an argument in court, but do little to communicate to the consumer the information he or she needs to use a product safely. Warnings like “Be Careful” do not communicate necessary information.
While a manufacturer might argue that warnings and instructions are unnecessary and that the hazard is obvious or a matter of common sense, a proper warning (when the hazard cannot be eliminated by a design change or when a guard or cover will not work) might say:
AMPUTATION POINT! OPENING IN HINGE MECHANISM MAY ACCOMMODATE A CHILD’S FINGERS
KEEP YOUR CHILD’S HANDS AND FINGERS OFF FRAME AND AWAY FROM HINGE MECHANISM WHEN OPENING AND CLOSING STROLLER
YOUR CHILD’S FINGERS MAY BE AMPUTATED OR SEVERELY CUT IF THEY ARE IN THE HINGE MECHANISM WHEN STROLLER IS OPENED OR CLOSED
Even the best warnings and instructions, however, don’t take the place of good design that eliminates the hazard and risk of injury altogether, and they don’t substitute for a guard when the good design cannot eliminate the hazard and risk of injury.
Maclaren has chosen to guard against the risk of injury by offering a "free repair kit," consisting of hinge covers for the pinch points where a child’s finger can be cut or amputated. The hinge covers appear to be made of cloth and snap onto the frame. A cover that easily snaps in place can also be easily removed, yet the unsafe pinch point remains. From a design standpoint, a guard or cover that can be easily removed without disabling the product, is inadequate. One must be concerned for the next family that inherits the stroller and who may be unaware of the covers’ importance, or that the covers will be removed once they get dirty. (Doesn’t Maclaren realize that peanut butter and jelly and many other substances are inherent to this product’s expected environment of use?)
The "free repair kit" might be worth just what Maclaren is charging for it, and a lot less than the $2 per stroller that Maclaren is reportedly spending on the kit.
What should a parent do?