Missteps by safety commission, company delayed recall of deadly cribs

CHICAGO -- Photographs taken of Liam Johns' crib by the Sacramento County Coroner's Office clearly show where it came apart. The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which the 9-month-old boy slipped feet-first.

CHICAGO -- Photographs taken of Liam Johns' crib by the Sacramento County Coroner's Office clearly show where it came apart. The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which the 9-month-old boy slipped feet-first.

Instead of falling to the floor, Liam got his head stuck between the rail and the mattress. Trapped in a hanging position, the boy asphyxiated.

Liam's April 2005 death in a Simplicity crib prompted an investigation by a federal consumer watchdog agency and a family lawsuit against the manufacturer.

But Simplicity and the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn't warn parents across the country about this potentially fatal flaw -- not after Liam's death, not after more complaints about the crib rails and not after another infant died last year.

Once the Chicago Tribune began questioning the company and the agency this month, a massive recall of Simplicity cribs followed.


On Friday, the CPSC took action on 1 million cribs, including the model that the Johns family used for Liam. It is the largest recall of full-size cribs in the agency's history.

The paper's examination of Simplicity's popular cribs underscores that, even in the aftermath of a child's death, the agency can fall short in its watchdog role, leaving children vulnerable to a documented hazard.

Interviews and records show that the federal investigator assigned to Liam's death failed to inspect the crib in his initial inquiry and didn't track down the model or manufacturer.

"We get so many cases," the investigator, Michael Ng, said in an interview this month. "Once I do a report, I send it in and that's it. I go to the next case. We could spend more time, but we are under the gun. We have to move on."

Only last week, after inquiries by the Tribune, did Ng return to California to find the crib. It had been held as evidence by sheriff's police and then was put in storage by a the family's lawyer.

Even with the recall, it remained unclear why it took so long to address the problem. The CPSC often gets bogged down in negotiations with companies over recalls because federal law limits its powers and its ability to disclose details of its investigations into dangerous products.

Nancy Cowles, a child-product safety advocate and executive director of Kids In Danger, called for congressional hearings to look into the delay. "Was it because the CPSC has no power and the company was able to stall?" she said.

In announcing the recall Friday, the CPSC blamed a flawed crib design and hardware that allowed parents to install the drop rails upside down, which can cause the rail to detach from the frame. The agency said it was aware of seven non-fatal cases of infants being trapped and55 other cases of drop-rail problems.


It also linked the Simplicity cribs to three deaths but did not release the names of those children or the dates of the fatal accidents.

According to records obtained from the agency through the federal Freedom of Information Act, the first complaint to the CPSC about a drop-rail problem with the crib came in July 2003 from a woman in Meridian, Miss. It involved the rail suddenly falling down but not separating from the crib.

A CPSC investigator tried to find the crib in December, five months later. By then the woman had returned it to the store for a refund. The crib was gone, according to a copy of the investigator's report.

The investigator then called Simplicity. "During our conversation, the customer service representative for Simplicity indicated that the manufacturer is aware of some issues with drop sides of this model crib. He said that all cases of which [the company] is aware have involved improper assembly of the drop side by the consumer," the report said.

Then, in February 2004, a mother complained about a more serious drop-rail issue: separation from the crib.

Julie Heath, who was living with her husband at the Fort Stewart, Ga., Army base, reported to the CPSC that an hour after she put her5-month-old daughter into the crib, she came into the nursery and found that one end of the drop rail had come loose. She said she also contacted Simplicity.

"I called the company, and they said it was no big deal," Heath said in an interview. "They said there were no problems with it. I thought it was scary and wondered if there were any kids who were hurt that they weren't telling us about."

Nicola Johns put her son Liam to bed about 8 p.m. on April 11, 2005, in their apartment in Citrus Heights, Calif.


She last checked on him about five hours later, just before she and her husband, Chad, went to bed. She was roused by her 2-year-old son, Logan, about 6:30 a.m. and got up to make breakfast.

"I went in to check on Liam and I couldn't see him at first," she said. "When I walked closer, I could see he was hanging. I lifted him up by his arms. He wasn't breathing."

According to police reports and a lawsuit filed by the family, sometime in the early morning, one end of the drop rail on Liam's crib came off its track.

Liam either rolled or slid feet first into the opening. His head was caught between the rail and the mattress.

When the recall of the Simplicity cribs finally came Friday, it was issued with a strong sense of urgency. A government spokesman stated bluntly that parents should keep their children out of the cribs until they are examined for flaws or fixed.

Cowles, the consumer advocate, also emphasized the high stakes in such a recall. "We don't want another baby to be harmed," she said.

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