This past September, Samsung – the Japanese electronics giant – was embroiled in controversy. The cause: some Samsung Galaxy Note 7 mobile phone units reportedly caught fire due to defective batteries.
The issue quickly consumed the news. TV shows aired videos of smoldering phones – and in one notorious example, a smoldering Jeep. People shared pictures of damage caused by burning Note 7 units on social media. Angry and horrified consumers flocked to electronics stores to return their phones, fearful that they were carrying ticking timebombs.
Samsung took action. The company issued a voluntary recall for all Note 7 units (followed by an official recall from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) and carried out an aggressive campaign to collect every model from consumers before they could cause any more damage. As of December, the company estimates it has received 93 percent of all Galaxy Note 7 devices in the U.S.
They couldn’t act fast enough to avoid the backlash, though. The FCC, along with major airlines, banned the device from all commercial flights and prohibited bringing the Note 7 onto the aircraft in any capacity. Tech review website CNET collected all of the units it had sent out to reviewers. Major mobile retailers stopped selling the device.
Three months later, the damage to company is still being determined; their net profit fell by 16.8 percent in the third quarter. Fortunately, no deaths resulted from the defective product – but with defective consumer products, that isn’t always the case.
Each instance of a catastrophic product failure like with Samsung’s flagship product raises troubling questions, particularly one: did the company know or suspect that the product was defective before it hit the market?
No evidence (as of this writing) has emerged to suggest Samsung knew there was a dangerous defect in their phones but released them anyway. But companies do this all the time, all in the pursuit of profits. And even if they don’t know for sure, frequently companies should have known of a risk or defect that should’ve kept the product from reaching the public.
Unfortunately, the first time many people hear of a problem with a product is when it makes the news for tragic reasons.
When products are released to the market, the first line of defense is the manufacturer itself. But as I mentioned, companies don’t always do the right thing and fix flaws before they cause problems. That leaves the U.S. regulatory process, in the form of industry and government organizations, to serve as the next and final line of defense.
But even that step has issues.
Problems with the U.S. Product Regulation Process
There are essentially three big problems with the regulatory process in the U.S.:
- Regulators usually can’t identify problems before they hit the market. According to a recent interview in Trial magazine with Elliot Kaye, the Chairman of the CPSC, “We don’t get to inject safety considerations into products before they hit the market, so we’re left to pick up the pieces after incidents start occurring.”
- There is no approval process for consumer products like there is with pharmaceutical products and the FDA.
- Just because a regulatory agency approves a product doesn’t mean it’s safe.
The first problem is easy to understand – no one can predict the future, and the sheer volume and rapidity with which new products are brought onto the market each year makes it so even product creators themselves can’t predict what will go wrong.
The second problem is a bit more difficult for many Americans to grasp once they are made aware of the fact. It defies common sense that there isn’t a regulatory agency that approves consumer products before they hit the market. Sure, there are various agencies that have oversight over certain types of products (like the FCC with mobile phones), but there’s no central agency that grants approval for products before they can be sold to consumers.
The third problem is perhaps the most dangerous: approval doesn’t necessarily mean the product is safe. Plenty of products that are approved each year are incredibly dangerous. Consumers can get lulled into a false sense of security. That’s because they think approval means “It’s okay” – which in fact it only means the product passed the test that the agency used.
Here’s the thing: agencies like the FDA don’t conduct independent tests for every product. That’d be impossible under the best of circumstances – countless products are introduced to the market each year – but agencies are also understaffed.
In lieu of independent tests, agencies typically use information given to them by the companies that have their own tests. Problems – and injuries – arise when companies withhold information from agencies that would threaten the approval process. When this happens, consumers can get hurt.
How Consumers Can Protect Themselves from Defective Products
As a consumer, you can’t directly help what a manufacturer does or doesn’t do when they’re developing a product. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. These include:
- Never be an early adopter. Early adopters are the first ones to face defective products. It’s better to wait and see if the first people to buy and use a product experience any problems. That leads to…
- Check consumer reviews before every purchase. Try and find reviews from consumers themselves. Industry “experts” and professional reviewers often miss flaws and defects due to the fact that there are far fewer of them than there are consumers.
- Beware of fake reviews. Along those lines, some online reviews are fake. Learn how to spot fake reviews from the real thing and remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. For its part, Amazon is suing sellers who paid for false reviews for their products.
- Keep an eye out for product recalls. Product recalls are there to protect you. In a post I wrote last year, I shared tips you can follow to keep track of recalls and take action should you discover you’re using a recalled – and therefore unsafe – product.
- Know where your products are being built. Many consumer products are manufactured overseas in countries with few – if any – regulations and regards for safety. That’s not to say an American-made product is automatically safe, but always try to find out where the product was manufactured before buying.
- Buy new when possible. Used products typically don’t come with warranties. You also don’t know how they were handled and where they came from originally.
What should you do if you’re injured by a defective product? First, seek medical care. Carefully document the circumstances of your injury. If you suspect the product is to blame, record everything. Then, contact a defective products attorney for more information on how to proceed.
You’ll want documentation of when you bought the product and from whom you bought it, as well as any other documentation that came with the product and the circumstances of how it was used. That, combined with medical information, is typically the foundation for determining if you have a case.
There are a lot of problems with our system for controlling and eliminating defective products. Manufacturers often have their best interests in mind, not yours. You have to take action on your own behalf and that of your family to keep yourselves safe.
Companies can’t be trusted to keep defective products off the market, and regulators aren’t always capable, either. The next time you buy something, be critical of the product and who made it – then fight back with your wallet by refusing to buy.