BETHESDA, Md. - Federal safety regulators will sue Ikea if the retailer does not take new steps to address problems with potentially unstable dressers already blamed for three toddlers' deaths, the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Tuesday.
Elliot Kaye made the remarks after meeting with safety advocates who say that the consumer awareness program Ikea launched last summer has been ineffective and that the company should take its Malm dressers, a popular low-cost model, off the market.
Although the agency had approved what Ikea was allowed to call a repair program, Kaye told the advocates there was now "no daylight" between their demands for action and his own.
In an interview with the Inquirer, Kaye said the agency continues to negotiate a resolution with Ikea. But if they cannot reach an agreement, he will push for legal action, he said.
"The CPSC is either going to get the remedy that will finally solve this issue with this particular company, or we'll go to court if it's not voluntarily agreed to," he said.
Tuesday's meeting, at the agency's headquarters, followed last month's disclosure that a third child had died in a Malm dresser tip-over. Theodore "Ted" McGee was killed on Feb. 14 when a six-drawer dresser toppled onto him in his Apple Valley, Minn., bedroom. His parents had put the 22-month-old down for a nap shortly before.
Requested by advocates from a handful of consumer safety groups, the meeting drew about a dozen people, including agency staffers, the mother of a child killed in a dresser tip-over, and a representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently added its voice to the coalition pressing for a recall.
Ikea did not send a representative. In a statement later Tuesday, the company said: "We have been collaborating with the CPSC on communicating about the importance of anchoring chests of drawers to the wall for the last year, and we will continue to do so."
In its July announcement, Ikea said 27 million of its dressers were at risk of tipping if not anchored to a wall and cited the tip-over deaths of two children since 2014, including a 2-year-old from West Chester. It offered to send replacement anchoring kits to customers who requested them.
Safety advocates have since criticized the company for selling dressers that do not meet the industry's own stability standard when not anchored
The advocates have criticized the company and asked why the commission broke from protocol in allowing Ikea's action to be called a repair program rather than a recall, which they say has greater impact on the public.
McGee's parents were unaware of Ikea's repair program, according to their lawyers.
Kaye, who joined the agency in 2010 and became commission chairman two years ago, has since pledged that under his watch, the agency will never make the same concession.
In his interview with the Inquirer, Kaye defended last summer's decision to let Ikea call its effort a repair program. He said the concession let the agency get the word to consumers far faster than had the agency had to sue.
"What you have to say is, would the family have been more likely to have heard about it if we didn't reach an agreement with Ikea and we sued them six months later?" Kaye said.
The commission might also now have a better argument in court, he said, able to argue to a judge that "we gave it a shot, it wasn't as effective as we all hoped, and now we have to take it to the next level."
He also said that as a condition of the first repair program, Ikea agreed to study ways to improve the stability of its dressers.
In his meeting with the advocates, Kaye hinted that Ikea had been working on changes to its dressers. He did not elaborate, but he said that if implemented, the changes could make the retailer a leader in tip-over safety.
Nancy Cowles, executive director of the children's product safety nonprofit Kids in Danger, called it encouraging that Kaye wants the same concessions from Ikea as the safety advocates do. She was also skeptical of the prospect that Ikea could become a safety leader. "I have to say at this point, they're the opposite of that," she said.
Health experts say furniture tip-overs have been a largely overlooked danger. Dozens of children die and tens of thousands of Americans are injured each year in such accidents.
Among those who attended Tuesday's meeting was Lisa Siefert, a Chicago woman whose son Shane died in a 2011 dresser tip-over. The bureau was not an Ikea model and has since been recalled.
Siefert is among those lobbying for more to be done. During the meeting, she slid a picture of her son across the table to Kaye.
"There are children dying and being injured," she told him. "All these families' futures. Mangled, living hell. Forever. Families are destroyed by this, and I think we can do more."
Members of Congress urge Ikea dresser recall
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) joined two other members of Congress Tuesday urging a full recall of Ikea's Malm dressers and a deeper probe of the company's full dresser line.
"The actions taken by Ikea are clearly insufficient," Casey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D., Minn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.) wrote in a letter to Consumer Products Safety Commission Chairman Elliot Kaye.
The trio cited the February death of Ted McGee, an Apple Valley, Minn., toddler who died when his Ikea dresser toppled onto him, as well as testing commissioned by the Inquirer last fall that showed the model does not meet the industry's own stability standard. "If the Malm dresser does indeed fail to meet the voluntary standard, the CPSC should declare them defective," their letter said.
The three also said the agency should force Ikea to stop selling the line until the company makes safety improvements and offer full refunds to Malm buyers. They also urged the agency to consider if similar steps are needed for other Ikea dressers.
-Tricia L. Nadolny