NO RATIONAL person wants to hurt a baby, especially Leslie Gudel, who's a mother of two.
Four years ago, to solve a nap-time problem she was having with her own child, she invented, then marketed, Nap Nanny, a portable baby recliner. She became a mini mommy mogul, with 160,000 eventually sold.
But now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has filed an administrative complaint seeking legal authority to pull the product from the market as a "substantial hazard" reportedly involved in five infant deaths.
The fact that the recliners were used contrary to the manufacturer's warning label - which the CPSC itself helped her write, she told me yesterday - doesn't matter. "A company needs to anticipate the ways in which consumers will use their products," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission.
That's a tall order. In a country of 310 million people, we have some real creative cuckoos out there.
When shuffling their Tarot cards, manufacturers have a couple of issues.
First, they have to ward off imaginative lawsuits by avaricious liability lawyers out to make a killing. Second, they have to satisfy government bureaucrats who reflexively blame the manufacturer rather than the consumer.
In manufacturers' efforts to immunize themselves from lawsuits (and potentially high payouts), you find hair dryers with warnings against use in the shower, metal ladders cautioning against being leaned against high-power lines, cardboard sunshields used to keep the sun off the dashboard cautioning, "Do not drive with sunshield in place," and microwave manuals warning, "Do not use for drying pets."
I am thinking each one of these warnings followed a lawsuit with some attorney claiming the manufacturer "should have known" the plaintiff was likely to fold up the baby stroller with the child still in it, or that his client wouldn't know not to use a portable drill as a toothbrush.
There's a need to acknowledge potential danger associated with normal use, but the law goes way beyond normal.
(Caution: Someone could roll up this newspaper and use it to beat you to death.)
A month ago, the cost of fighting the CPSC drove Gudel out of business, ending 22 jobs, she says.
She established the company while dividing her time between the business and her role as an anchor and savvy reporter for Comcast SportsNet.
Wolfson says the CPSC didn't pounce on her suddenly, but the staff felt Gudel was dragging her feet in proposing adequate safeguards.
In July 2010, Nap Nanny agreed to a voluntary recall to correct a design problem. A warning label was ordered and located where it could be easily seen. CSPC "helped author and approve the language" of the warning, Gudel says.
That's true, Wolfson told me yesterday, but he said the issue of safety "had evolved over time" and that the agency is most active on behalf of a "vulnerable population," meaning babies.
Understood, but the warning clearly said Nap Nanny was not to be used in a crib and that's exactly what happened in four of the five deaths.
I don't make light of that. Gudel herself calls it a tragedy, but at what point do we accept the idea that adults have to be responsible for their own actions, for ignoring simple directions? Has our culture become so impoverished, our expectations so low, that no one has to accept personal responsibility?
Is this where we want America to be?