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Eric T. Chaffin
Eric T. Chaffin
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Lawsuits Prompt Companies to Rethink Safety Practices

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Successful lawsuits not only help families cope with the financial strain of medical expenses, prescription drugs, therapies, and life-long medical care, but they also help force big corporations to rethink how they're doing business.

Recent news, for example, highlights how the actions of several plaintiffs and their legal representatives encouraged change in the gas fireplace industry, while it seems more lawsuits are needed to encourage similar change in the human tissue industry.

Angry Parents Go to Court

According to a report by FairWarning, more than 2,000 children ages five and under were injured by touching the glass in front of a gas fireplace in a recent 10-year period. Many of these children suffered second- and third-degree burns.

The families of the injured children were angry, and rightly so. The fireplace companies had done little to help protect small children, and families who inherited the fireplaces never had access to any of the warning statements. Some were also unaware that the glass in front of a fireplace can remain dangerously hot for at least 30 minutes after being turned off.

At least a dozen lawsuits were filed against gas fireplace manufacturers because of these serious injuries. Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission started looking into the matter, and in June 2011, asked for public comments on the need for federal standards.

Lawsuits Get Results

No company likes to be sued. There's not only the time and the expense, but the damage to the company's reputation. Lawsuits also bring out information companies would rather not have made available to the public, particularly as the parties review documents and question experts to get to the heart of the matter.

To reduce the risk of additional lawsuits and to try to head off further damage to the companies' public images, gas fireplace manufacturers are making changes. Manufacturers will now provide protective mesh screens as standard equipment with new units. What's interesting is that an industry technical committee had previously rejected the need for a physical barrier, but now are busy developing new guidelines for them that will be published by the American National Standards Institute.

Two companies are already providing these safety screens—Health & Home Technologies, and Lennox Heart Products. Lennox started offering free attachable screens in 2011, as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit.

Other Companies Ignoring Complaints

It seems other industries may need the push of some legal pressure to clean up their act. RTI Biologics Inc., for example, was recently warned by the FDA about widespread contamination throughout their site in Florida. RTI provides human tissue implants to various companies throughout the U.S., and these implants are then used to heal sports injuries and repair fractures.

This isn't the first warning the company has received. An FDA inspection in 2011 also indicated that the company had received 758 internal reports of a wide range of complaints or adverse events in a year. Company records show evidence of bacteria capable of causing human disease being present in sports medicine implants.

RTI is already facing a number of lawsuits in connection with Biomedical Tissue Services. So far, the FDA has taken no stronger action to limit the company's distribution of implants.