The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) can be a useful tool that subrogation professionals can employ to effectively gather information to build a successful products liability claim. In cases where a loss is caused by a defective product, a simple FOIA request to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (“CPSC”) can produce a veritable treasure trove of documents of reported incidents involving a particular product.
The CPSC tracks all complaints it receives about safety issues involving products sold in the United States. The complaints can come from a variety of sources, including local, state, or federal government agencies, as well as from consumers who contact the CPSC’s hotline. Depending on the number of incidents and the magnitude of the risk to consumers, the CPSC may launch an in-depth investigation (“IDI”) of a particular product.
Subrogation professionals investigating a potential products liability claim can utilize the CPSC’s website and FOIA requests to assist in determining whether there have been issues with a particular product. A FOIA request can produce incident reports and IDI reports relating to the product in question. To find out whether a product has been recalled, you can conduct a search at the CPSC website at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prerel.html.
There are several ways to submit a FOIA request to the CPSC. The CPSC accepts submissions via mail, facsimile, and even by email. Here is the CPSC’s contact information for FOIA requests:
FOIA Requester Service Center
US Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East West Highway, Room 502
Bethesda, MD 20814
Tel. (301) 504-7923
Fax. (301) 504-0127
It is important to note that the individual making the request is responsible for the cost of reproducing the documents, although there are times when the CPSC will waive the fee. In any event, the cost pales in comparison to the cost of filing suit and obtaining the documents through discovery. Additionally, the manufacturer of the product is afforded an opportunity to correct or challenge any of the requested information, and the manufacturer can block disclosure of incident reports where they can prove inaccuracies with supporting documentation. There are also other rare instances where manufacturers can prevent disclose if the requested information contains trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information. To read more about FOIA requests and about what information is available, go to the CPSC’s Guide to Public Information at http://www.cpsc.gov/about/guide.html#Introduction.
Finally, be on the lookout for a searchable database, which the CPSC is in the process of developing. The database was mandated by Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It is anticipated that the database will be online at www.saferproducts.gov in March 2011.