Consumer agency barred from telling parents about Fisher-Price infant inclined sleeper deaths

ByMichael Finney and Renee Koury via KGO logo
Thursday, September 29, 2022
EMBED <>More Videos

The CPSC is legally barred from warning the public about any specific product dangers without first getting consent from the companies. In this case, Fisher-Price.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Wednesday night, 7 On Your Side told you about a popular Fisher-Price bassinet that millions were buying -- unaware that infants had died in it -- until it was recalled.

A grieving mom wishes she'd known about the fatalities before she laid her daughter in the Rock 'N Play.

So why did no one warn parents?

A member of Congress called it a national scandal. The company knew babies died in the Rock 'N Play. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also knew but was stopped from warning us -- leaving parents the only ones left in the dark. It's because of a gag rule, muzzling the CPSC -- which is now trying to warn us about deaths of more babies -- but it's not easy.

7 On Your Side told you the story of Erika Richter, whose newborn baby Emma was sleeping in her Fisher-Price inclined bassinet four years ago.

And never woke up.

RELATED: Grieving mom asks why no one warned about Fisher-Price infant sleeper deaths

"'Erika, something's wrong with Emma.' And she was blue,'' Richter recalls her partner saying.

Emma was found in her inclined Rock 'N Play sleeper, with her head hanging down, not breathing. Doctors were unable to revive her.

"I was on the floor praying... what else do you do except pray and hope it's not true," Richter said.

Richter and her partner had no idea the Consumer Product Safety Commission had been investigating deaths in the Rock 'N Play. CPSC is legally barred from warning the public about any specific product dangers without first getting consent from the companies. In this case, Fisher-Price.

Rock 'N Play was recalled in 2019 -- eight months after Emma died.

"If I had known the dangers of the Fisher-Price Rock 'N Play even minutes before Emma was placed in it, I would still have my daughter," Richter testified in a Congressional hearing in June 2021.

RELATED: TJ Maxx, Marshalls sold dangerous baby products after recall; parent company to pay $13 million fine

The recall notice said more than 30 infants had died in the Rock 'N Play since 2009. Now it's blamed for even more infant deaths.

Last summer lawmakers summoned Mattel and Fisher-Price to a hearing where the companies acknowledged the death toll had tripled.

"Absolutely shocking. It's a national scandal," said U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

"How many children have died, totally, in this toy or whatever?" asked Representative Glenn Grothman, R-W.I., at the hearing.

"Today we are aware of approximately, I believe it is, the number is currently 97," said Chuck Scothon, Fisher-Price general manager.

RELATED: UPPAbaby jogging strollers recalled for fingertip amputation hazard, CPSC says

"I am appalled. Fisher-Price admitted here today for the first time 97 babies died in the Rock 'N Play," Rep. Maloney said.

"Is there an acceptable quota of deaths before you recall a product? We're talking babies here," asked Representative Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

"Mr. Kreiz, on behalf of Mattel, will you accept responsibility for this tragedy and apologize to the dozens of families whose children died using your product?" asked Rep. Maloney.

"Well let me first say that our hearts go out to every family who suffered the loss. The Rock 'N Play sleeper was safe when used in accordance with its instructions and safety warnings. The sleeper was designed and developed following extensive research, medical advice, safety analysis and more than a year of testing and reviews," replied Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz.

But pediatricians have long warned sleeping on an incline is inherently dangerous for babies. The angle can cause babies to droop or roll, their heads too heavy for their necks.

RELATED: 4moms recalls over 2 million infant swings, rockers after 10-month-old death

"When a baby is on an incline, it's actually harder for them to keep their head and neck straight," said Dr. Rachel Moon of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and chair of the SIDS task force. "And so it's harder to keep their airway straight, and they and they are more likely to fatigue and, and then when their head kind of slumps down... then then their airway gets kinked."

Years ago, regulators in three countries -- Canada, Australia and England -- had deemed the Rock 'N Play too risky for babies. Canada outright banned it.

But Fisher-Price kept selling it here in the United States.

Now the CPSC and Fisher-Price are warning that 13 more babies have died since 2009 in another Fisher-Price product -- an inclined baby seat called the Fisher-Price Infant-to-Toddler Rocker. Babies can risk suffocation if they fall asleep in the rocker. However, the product was not recalled. It's still on store shelves.

The warning for the rocker says it should never be used for sleep, but does not say how or why the babies died.

RELATED: Capri Sun recall: Kraft Heinz recalls juice pouches that may contain cleaning solution

CPSC learned of the deaths in March but the Consumer Product Safety Act prohibits the CPSC from releasing information or warning about any specific product without consent from the company, a law known as the "gag rule."

The CPSC negotiated with Fisher-Price for nearly three months over terms of the warning before it was issued in June -- a delay that troubled one commissioner.

"Because if there's any delay, if there's a two month delay or longer, and a child dies because we weren't able to warn the public, it's beyond tragic," said CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka.

But Erika Richter says she's free to warn new parents.

"Because they still have a chance. I wish that I had that chance," Richter said.

Emma would have turned four this summer. Richter still hangs on to her baby clothes, and the blanket that swaddled her the day of her birth.

"I think about what kinds of things she would like, what kinds of Disney movies would she like, what kinds of animals," she said. "And this is what I have, I have an empty blanket."

Congress has been taking action. A new law just took effect that now bans all inclined baby sleepers like the Rock 'N Play. And a bill in Congress would repeal the so-called gag rule. If it passes, the CPSC would be able to warn us about dangerous products.

It seems like a simple fix to some of these hidden dangers. But will it pass? 7 On Your Side will report on that next.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

7OYS's consumer hotline is a free consumer mediation service for those in the San Francisco Bay Area. We assist individuals with consumer-related issues; we cannot assist on cases between businesses, or cases involving family law, criminal matters, landlord/tenant disputes, labor issues, or medical issues. Please review our FAQ here. As a part of our process in assisting you, it is necessary that we contact the company / agency you are writing about. If you do not wish us to contact them, please let us know right away, as it will affect our ability to work on your case. Due to the high volume of emails we receive, please allow 3-5 business days for a response.

READY TO CONTACT 7 ON YOUR SIDE?

EMAIL US AT 7OYS@KGO-TV.COM


Please note the address uses the letter "O", not zeros.

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live