CHARLESTON – A death of a Fayette County infant helped trigger this week's recall of more than two million cribs, according to a Charleston attorney.
Harry F. Bell Jr., of the Bell Law Firm, said he shared information with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission about the 2007 death of 6-month-old Carter Michael Pack of Summersville. Bell is representing the Pack family in a lawsuit against Stork Craft Manufacturing Inc.
Drop-side cribs, manufactured by Canadian company Stork Craft, caused dozens of injuries and at least four deaths, federal officials said Monday when the voluntary recall was announced. Parts of the crib's side rails could break, go missing or be installed upside down.
If the rails come loose, infants and toddlers could get wedged in between the rail and the mattress, where they could suffocate. If the rail became completely detached, the child could fall out of the crib. About 1.2 million were sold at retailers across America since 1993. Some 147,000 cribs were sold with a Fisher-Price logo.
"It has taken private lawsuits and private attorneys like us contacting the CPSC and their folks investigating to bring this action about," Bell said Tuesday. "Don't ever think that we don't make a difference. If one child's life is saved because we sued and raised hell about unsafe products like this, then my entire career will have been worth 100 defense attorneys.
"If fighting for clients in a case like this helps in any way to save a child's life, then almost 30 years of practicing law has been worthwhile. Representing wonderful families like the Packs, who have suffered such horrible and tragic losses due to someone else's negiligence, is an honor."
Jessica and Eric Pack filed their lawsuit last year in Kanawha Circuit Court. According to the suit, in May 2006, Jessica Pack bought a Storkling crib, designed, manufactured, and sold by Stork Craft. On July 5, 2006, Carter Michael Pack was born.
The suit says Jessica Pack noticed wood screws on the crib's railing had loosened on Jan. 16, 2007. They were tightened by Eric Pack.
Later that day, Jessica fed her son and put him down for a nap at about 2:55 p.m. About an hour later, she found Carter Michael with his face pressed against the crib's mattress, between the railing and the crib itself. He was not breathing, the suit says.
The suit says the Packs immediately removed the baby from his crib, called 911 and began CPR. Carter Michael Pack was taken to Summersville Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 4:55 p.m.
"The immediate cause of death as determined by the state of West Virginia was asphyxia as a direct result of entrapment between the rail and mattress of the defective crib," the suit says.
According to the suit, Stork Craft put the crib on the market using screws that are in violation of safety regulations promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In the five-count suit, the Packs claimed they suffered sorrow; mental anguish; solace to include society, companionship, comfort, guidance in the kindly offices and advice of the decedent; loss of income of the decedent; services, protection, care and assistance provided by the decedent; and funeral expenses. They seek compensatory and punitive damages.
Consumer advocates long have pushed for a ban on drop-side cribs, which have one side that slides down, making it easier to reach the child inside. More than 5 million of them have been recalled over the past two years.
Officials with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said they -- along with Canadian officials and Stork Craft -- know of more than 100 incidents of railing detachment, including 67 incidents in the United States. The Pack incident is one of four entrapments in Stork Craft cribs that resulted in suffocations, officials said.
CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum has said this week in interviews that her agency has been slow to act on this matter.
"We have just not been acting as quickly as we should have at the Consumer Product Safety Commission on these types of incidents," she said.
Bell said he was disappointed that the agency did not act sooner.
"We have been sharing information with the Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding Carter's death, but the agency has not acted with the speed that it should have given the risk these cribs pose to children," he said. "Parents should be able to place their trust in products they buy for their children's use, but the indifference of manufacturers and the slow response of government agencies tasked with helping ensure product safety undermines that trust.
"My hope is that the action taken this week will spare other families the grief and horror the Packs have had to endure as the result of Stork Craft's negligence."
Bell said Stork Craft is dragging its feet in responding to the lawsuit.
Stork Craft, which is being defended in the Pack case by the Charleston law firm of Flaherty, Sensabaugh & Bonasso, has asked for the Pack lawsuit to be dismissed. It also asked to be awarded attorney's fees. The case is still pending.
A call to Stork Craft's West Virginia attorneys was not immediately returned.
Bell said he wonders where groups such as West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stand on this issue. (The U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform owns The West Virginia Record.)
"Where are the dollars they spend to undermine our Constitutional rights to jury trials when those same dollars could be better spent to make safer products," Bell asked. "Where's the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse when defendants are dragging claims out -- where are they?. Where's the mailer saying, 'This is terrible?'"
Richie Heath, executive director of WV CALA, said in an e-mail that the group "vigorously supports the rights of truly injured individuals to file meritorious claims in court, as well as the inherent rights of defendants to mount a vigorous and lawful defense."
"As we are unfamiliar with the case and Mr. Bell's assertions, we cannot comment on the practices of the particular defendant in the instant case," Heath said in the e-mail. "The right to a jury trial extends to all parties, not just plaintiffs, and WV CALA supports this right wholeheartedly.
"While we think it is wrong for people to file meritless lawsuits which clog our courts and waste taxpayer dollars, we also caution against any knee-jerk reactions to infringe upon the rights of all litigants to have their day in court."
This week's recall is the second for Stork Craft cribs this year. In January, about 535,000 were recalled. Before Monday's announcement, more than 5 million cribs, bassinets and play yards had been recalled since the beginning of 2007, according to CPSC.
Toys "R" Us, one of the nation's largest retailers of nursery furniture, said it has decided to stop placing orders for drop-side cribs and expects to stop carrying them by the end of 2009.
Jennifer Albano, a Toys "R" Us spokeswoman, told CNN.com that the company supports proposed standards that would, among other things, require that cribs no longer be manufactured with a drop-side.
Albano said a consortium of crib manufacturers, consumer safety advocates and a products standards organization met with the CPSC in March to discuss the possibility of changing voluntary production standards for cribs as part of ongoing efforts to improve safety.
However, no official decision has been made and Toys "R" Us does still have some drop-side cribs in stock, Albano said.
Locally, the Pack's case has been assigned to Judge Tod Kaufman.
Kanawha Circuit Court case number 08-C-1149