Meghan DeLong woke on May 14, 2017, and heard her 2-year-old son Conner babbling happily down the hall. She knew it was him without having to check. Conner had always been the ringleader, first to walk and talk while his brother, Kaleb, just five months younger, followed his lead.
DeLong left her bedroom, let the dog outside, then went to get the boys up.
It would be her first Mother’s Day as the legal parent of her two adopted sons.
In their room, she found their Ikea dresser toppled forward, the large frame leaning awkwardly on the out-turned drawers. Conner was beneath and not breathing, his brain deprived of oxygen. He died the next day.
“There’s a piece of you that’s taken,” the Florida mother said last week, “when you have to peel the dresser back from your lifeless child.”
DeLong, 38, is part of a growing community of parents tethered by that shared loss. Conner is the ninth child known to have died beneath a tipped Ikea dresser, and among the more than 450 children killed by a furniture, appliance, or television tip-over since 2000, data collected by the federal government shows.
But unlike other parents before her, DeLong has taken what appears to be an unprecedented step in addressing the hazard. This month, she filed a lawsuit aimed not at one company, but at the furniture industry as a whole. In it, she accuses the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA), a trade association, of being “motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain” and says the dresser-stability standard its members have helped create is woefully inadequate.
As evidence, she points to her son’s death. The dresser that fell on Conner — the 8-drawer model from Ikea’s Hemnes line — meets the standard. For that reason, it was not included in Ikea’s historic 2016 recall of 29 million dressers and is still being sold.
“AHFA has actively and blatantly sought to utilize its known, arbitrary, and inadequate voluntary standards as both a sword and a shield to conceal the unreasonably hazardous nature of millions of dressers and units designed and manufactured by the furniture industry,” says the suit, filed on the mother’s behalf by Miami attorney Thomas Scolaro.
Also named as defendants in the suit, which was filed in Montgomery County, is ASTM, the Conshohocken-based nonprofit that facilitates the creation of the furniture safety standard by gathering the stakeholders. Spokespeople for both ASTM and the American Home Furnishings Alliance declined to comment.
Every 17 minutes in the United States, someone is injured in a furniture tip-over, the majority being children, according to numbers collected by the federal government. The threat gained national attention in 2016 when Ikea, which has its North American headquarters in Conshohocken, announced the recall of 29 million dressers it said could become unstable if not tethered to a wall. At the time, seven children since 1989 were known to have died beneath tipped Ikea dressers, including a 2-year-old boy from West Chester, Pa., who died in 2014.
Ikea has long maintained that its dressers, including those recalled for not meeting the standard, were safe when attached to a wall, as the instructions directed. In a statement last week, a spokesperson for the company said all its dressers now comply.
(DeLong, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., last year filed suit against Ikea in nearby Hillsborough County, where the dresser was purchased; the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. Ikea previously settled suits filed by the families of three children who died in tip-overs of its dressers for $50 million.)
The voluntary stability test DeLong is challenging in court is designed to ensure a dresser remains standing when a 50-pound weight, meant to simulate the pull of a child, is hung on an extended drawer. It is developed by a committee of manufacturers, testing labs, safety advocates, and consumers. ASTM facilitates the process, but its employees do not weigh in on the standard.
Conner weighed only 30 pounds, well below the test’s 50-pound threshold.
Safety advocates and federal regulators for several years have been advocating to strengthen the test by, for example, increasing the test weight and simulating how dressers are used in real life: loaded with clothing, often with multiple drawers extended at one time.
Such changes to the standard would require many manufacturers to make costly design changes to their dressers.
The industry has largely resisted the changes, saying the focus should be on enforcing the current standard. They have pressed the Consumer Product Safety Commission to provide data on fatalities involving compliant products, a request regulators say is unrealistic since the limited available data is often collected by police departments, not trained safety investigators.
DeLong joined the standards committee at ASTM — the same nonprofit she is now suing — last year and has listened to the argument.
“Our children are the data,” she said. “I don’t know what else [they are] looking for.”
Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger and a member of the standards committee, shared DeLong’s frustrations, saying many manufacturers on the committee have been engaged in “constant stonewalling.”
“At every step of the way there’s been resistance and slowing the process down,” Cowles said.
The last significant update to the standard was in 2014. Cowles said members recently voted on several updates, including increasing the weight to 60 pounds. She said before the changes could go into effect any negative ballots — of which there were numerous — must first be weighed by the group.
Scolaro, DeLong’s attorney, said she is seeking $50 million in damages, money she would use to lobby Congress and the federal government for increased regulations on furniture manufacturers. In April, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.) introduced a bill that would require a mandatory safety standard for dressers. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) co-introduced a similar bill in 2016, but it never gained traction.
“She wants to be on par with the American Home Furnishings Alliance and their influence in Congress and their influence in the regulatory process,” Scolaro said. “And the only way she can be on par with that is to have the war chest.”
It is a mission DeLong never wanted.
She said she was unaware of the danger of dresser tip-overs until one tipped on Conner.
In the hospital the next day, she wrapped him in his favorite blanket, held him in her arms, and let the doctors turn off life support.
He was gone within minutes.
She went home with one son, wondering what she could have done differently.
“I know [now] that it wasn’t me,” she said. “It’s a flaw in something bigger than me. Something bigger than Conner. Something bigger than all the other children who have died.”