What would toys be like without the civil justice system?

Since 1974, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued more than 850 recalls for toy products, many for hazards like magnets, lead and other dangers hidden in our children’s toys. In the face of such risks, and with so few resources at hand, American parents have come to rely on consumer groups and the civil justice system to serve both as an early warning system and an enforcement mechanism against negligent corporations. Civil actions by parents across the country have consistently forced corporations and regulators to take action.


The choking hazards of small toy parts, small balls, and balloons have long been one of the leading causes of toy-related fatalities. Choking hazards were the leading cause of CPSC toy recalls in 2009. Yet the millions of recalled toys may just be the tip of the iceberg. Many toys still on shelves barely meet the CPSC standard for small pieces. Of particular danger are objects that are narrow in shape, such as toy nails or darts, because they can more easily cause suffocation. In 2007, at least two boys died after asphyxiating on soft darts from Chinese-made toy guns. The toy’s importer refused to recall the gun. At least one other child died under the same circumstances before a civil action by one of the families persuaded the retailer to pull it off shelves.

The CSI Fingerprint Examination Kit—a toy based on the hit CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—allowed children to look for fingerprints with a special powder and brushes. The powder in question turned out to contain up to five percent asbestos. The alarm was sounded in November 2007, but the toy’s maker, CBS Consumer Products, decided to leave it on shelves in the run up to Christmas. Rather than wait for the CPSC to negotiate a recall, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization filed a civil action to stop sales of the kit.

Over the last several years, toy manufacturers have increasingly used small, powerful magnets, creating a new category of deadly toys. These magnets can come loose and be swallowed by small children. Unlike other small objects, which are often passed through the body, magnets pose a unique risk. If two or more magnets are swallowed, they can attract to each other through intestinal walls. This can result in pinched, blocked or twisted intestines. The effect is fast and devastating. Magnets quickly erode through the intestinal wall, spilling bacteria into the body. Serious infections, blood poisoning, and even death may result. The family of a toddler who died after ingesting nine tiny magnets filed a lawsuit that prompted the CPSC to recall the dangerous toy and raised awareness across the nation about the hidden dangers of magnetic toys.


The danger most frequently encountered with toys is invisible to even the most watchful parent’s eye: lead contamination. Lead is the second-most deadly household toxin in existence, after arsenic, and no level of exposure is safe. Yet every holiday season is marked by incidences of children being sickened by lead-tainted toys. Most were still on store shelves and allegedly passed toy manufacturers’ internal tests. A series of lawsuits in the late 2000s not only helped remove lead-tainted toys from store shelves, but also helped establish quality assurance programs overseen by the courts.

Children’s jewelry is more likely to contain lead or other toxic metals than many other toys. Even after 18 million pieces of children’s jewelry were recalled between 2005 and 2007, CPSC tests still found that 20 percent of children’s jewelry contained unsafe levels of lead. And the danger was not over once manufacturers stopped using lead, as many began to use the carcinogenic metal cadmium as a replacement. What’s more, the vast majority of recalled items were never actually returned, meaning toxic jewelry remains on children’s dressers. With the CPSC’s testing and enforcement actions hampered by inadequate funding, the civil justice system is often the last line of defense for parents to protect their children. In fact, insurers have warned manufacturers of the risks they will face in court by allowing the use of cadmium.

Injuries from scooters, choking hazards, and lead-contamination are always in the news, but beyond the headlines lie a myriad of dangers: beads that contain date rape drugs, asbestos, uranium, and other toxins, baby boats that drop their infant occupants under water, toy helicopters that catch fire, or aromatherapy kits that detonate with acid. Every year brings new hazards to confound even the most cautious parent. Time after time, the civil justice system has served as both a warning system to parents and federal agencies, and is the only mechanism capable of consistently holding corporations accountable.

 Originally published in “Why we need a strong civil justice system” by AAJ, June 2014.

One thought on “Toys

  1. Pingback: Holiday Toy Safety Update | Fighting for Justice

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