A lawsuit filed by an anonymous company sought to remove allegedly false or misleading information about the company’s product from an online product safety database maintained by a federal agency. The plaintiff in Company Doe v. Tenenbaum, No. 8:11-cv-02959, slip op. (D. Md., Oct. 22, 2012), alleged that a report submitted to the website described injuries or damages that were not caused by its product. The court reviewed Congress’ intent in mandating the creation of the website and ruled that reports in the database need to show a direct connection between the product and the injury. It granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and ordered that the report in question be sealed. The court’s opinion offers important insight for consumers into how federal courts may view the fundamental standards of proof in products liability claims.
Congress mandated the creation of an online database of product safety information in the Consumer Product Safety Information Act of 2008 (CPSIA). 15 U.S.C. § 2055a. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched SaferProducts.gov in accordance with the law’s requirements. The database contains product safety information obtained from medical professionals, government entities, safety organizations, child care organizations, and reports submitted by consumers. Id. at § 2055a(b)(1). Consumers submitting reports must provide their own names and contact information, along with descriptions of the product and the damage, the identity of the manufacturer or labeler, and a verification stating that the information is true and correct. Id. at § 2055a(b)(2)(B). The law requires the CPSC to provide any manufacturer or labeler identified in consumer-submitted reports with copies of those reports, with an opportunity to comment on or dispute the consumer’s charges. Id. at § 2055a(c).
The present lawsuit is the first time a court has ordered the CPSC not to post a report on SaferProducts. The plaintiff, seeking leave of court to file anonymously, brought suit against the CPSC’s administrator, Inez Tenenbaum, to obtain an order sealing or suppressing the report. The company had reportedly made a direct request to the CPSC to keep the report off of the website, but the CPSC had refused. The plaintiff’s allegation was that the damages claimed in the report were not “related to” the plaintiff’s product within the meaning of the CPSIA. Medical experts and other evidence produced by the plaintiff purportedly demonstrated the lack of a causal connection between the two.
The court considered Congress’ intent in drafting the CPSIA and reviewed a large body of federal law in order to determine the meaning of the term “relating to,” as it is used to describe the relationship between the product and the claimed harm. It concluded that “relating to” in the CPSIA means “connected with” or “associated with.” Company Doe, slip op. at 26. While the statute does not require proof of causation, it requires more than “speculation.” Id. at 42. The court ruled that the CPSC had not established “the necessary nexus” between the harm described in the report and the plaintiff’s product. Id. at 41.
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