Nine months after the deaths of two toddlers prompted Ikea to launch a safety awareness campaign about unstable dressers, a third fatality has the company and federal regulators reviewing whether that effort went far enough - and negotiating potential next steps for Ikea.
A company spokeswoman on Wednesday acknowledged its ongoing discussions with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission about "additional actions" that the retailing giant might take.
She wouldn't elaborate on the negotiations, nor would a representative from the safety agency.
But calls for a full-blown recall of Malm dressers - a popular, low-cost line involved in all three deaths - mounted last week. Safety advocates said they were baffled, and increasingly concerned, that the commission has let Ikea keep selling dressers that fail widely accepted stability tests.
"It's a no-brainer," Pamela Gilbert, who served as executive director of the safety commission in the 1990s, said Thursday. "It needs to be recalled. And I think Ikea needs to spend a lot of money making sure everybody knows about it."
The new negotiations were sparked by the Feb. 14 death of 22-month-old Theodore "Ted" McGee. The toddler from Apple Valley, Minn., died when a six-drawer Malm dresser toppled onto him in his bedroom, where his parents had put him down for a nap.
His death was the third in two years involving a Malm dresser, but the first disclosed since Ikea and the safety agency launched a "repair program" and awareness campaign designed to educate the public and prevent future deaths.
In their July announcement, they said 27 million dressers were at risk of tipping if not anchored to the wall, 7 million of them Malms. Ikea offered to send repair kits to any customer who requested them and has since provided about 300,000, the company said, an approximate 1 percent response rate.
Under the CPSC policy, a repair program is a type of recall, but Ikea and the commission - whose representatives negotiated the agreement behind closed doors - did not call it one.
Advocates faulted that decision, arguing that including the word "recall" would have had more resonance and impact on consumers.
McGee's parents, who bought their Malm dresser in 2012, had not heard about the repair program, according to their lawyers.
"Obviously, it's a question we have," lawyer Dan Mann said, "is whether the outcome would have been different if there has been a full-blown recall. . . . Whether he'd still be alive."
After an Inquirer report on McGee's death last week, a coalition of consumer advocates and the parents of several children killed in tip-overs sent separate letters to the safety commission, criticizing regulators for letting Ikea continue to sell the dressers.
Members of Congress are drafting their own letter, urging a full investigation of the Malm dressers and a stronger response to prevent more deaths, according to an aide to Senator Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.).
The CPSC has launched an investigation into McGee's death. But officials from the agency have repeatedly declined to discuss it, or their current or past negotiations with Ikea, citing a federal law that bars them from talking about their interaction with companies they regulate without the company's consent.
The Ikea recall has also been an undercurrent in ongoing discussions about strengthening the industry's safety standard. On Thursday, tensions over those changes were on display when the committee that drafts the standard met in Conshohocken.
One proposal by the agency seemed directly shaped by the Malm deaths. Furniture manufacturers pushed back on that change and others, saying the industry's focus should be on companies that ignore the current standard - not foisting new rules on firms that already comply.
The agency's proposed change would close what one CPSC commissioner, Marietta Robinson, has described as a loophole used by at least one company to skirt the standard.
Robinson has said the company contends that their dressers don't need to pass the stability test because they are designed to be used only when anchored to the wall. She hasn't identified the company, and agency staffers didn't, either, when discussing the proposal at the meeting.
But the argument she described mirrored the same one Ikea has previously used to defend its sales of the Malm dresser.
In an interview, Robinson said such reasoning is "just wrong."
"It would be like car companies saying we don't have to put air bags in cars if somebody drives them drunk," she said. "One has nothing to do with the other. The standard has to do with the manufacturer's responsibility to make the furniture stable."
Earlier this year, Robinson also proposed, and the five-member commission approved, broadening their jurisdiction over the action plans companies implement on potentially dangerous products. Those plans previously were approved, in the vast majority of cases, only by the executive director's office.
Now, when involving a death, they must be voted on by the full commission.
That means Robinson and the others could have a greater role in future action plans - including advocating that the commission go to court when companies resist addressing defective products.
"If a so-called recall or repair program does not correct the defect that's causing the injury or death, then we should not go along with it. And we shouldn't put our stamp of approval on it," Robinson said. "We should litigate and try to get the companies that have the defect to fix it."