Sleepers whose beds catch fire would get more time to escape with a new mattress flammability standard approved Thursday, but consumer groups complained that language attached to the rule could limit lawsuits against manufacturers.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s three-member board unanimously approved the new rule, which creates standards governing how quickly a fire from open flames such as candles and cigarette lighters can spread across mattresses. Until now, a more than 30-year-old standard only regulated how mattresses handled smoldering fires from cigarettes.
“It’s going to save a lot of lives, prevent a lot of injuries from mattress fires and we’re proud of that,” CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton said after the vote. “We think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The CPSC estimates the new standard to limit fire intensity and prevent or delay “flashover” — when the mattress is engulfed in flames — will increase escape time and could prevent up to 270 deaths and 1,330 injuries a year. The rule, which will go into effect July 1, 2007, limits the peak rate of heat that can be released during the first 30 minutes a mattress catches fire.
The rule is the first ever “major regulation” to come out of the CPSC because it will cost mattress manufacturers at least $100 million per year to comply.
Although he voted for the rule Thursday, CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore said in a statement that he objected to language that could limit lawsuits.
“If we were the ones having to sit in judgment of whether a potential lawsuit should be pre-empted, then we would have to make such a determination,” he wrote. “But we are not, and we should not.”
Several consumer groups and at least two lawmakers also object to the language in the preamble of the new rule that will pre-empt existing state standards and requirements, including those created by courts. They say it will prevent people from seeking court compensation if hurt by a product meeting the CPSC standard, particularly in states where current flammability standards may be higher than the new national rule.
“To attempt to prevent consumer access to the court based on a minimum standard that’s promulgated by the CPSC is unprecedented,” said Janell Mayo Duncan, senior counsel for the Consumers Union. “What the government is attempting to do is make sure that suits can’t go forward.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, sent Stratton a letter this week expressing concerns about the preamble, writing that it will remove the incentive for industries to integrate new safety technology into their products so long as they meet the federal standard.
“Safety standards are baseline starting points,” wrote Inouye, co-chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “They should not be ceilings.”
Stratton noted that the preamble language is not part of the actual rule and it is not an unprecedented move.
“We believe that the state courts are pre-empted from making findings that would establish some other standard, whether it’s higher or lower,” Stratton said. “The groups are concerned that courts are not able to establish a higher standard, well, I’m concerned that maybe the courts could establish a lower standard.”
Mike Murray, vice president-legal counsel at Sealy Inc., one of the top four mattress manufacturers, said “product liability is not a concern of this company” because it is sued so rarely — one or two times every two or three years.
Ryan Trainer, executive vice president of the International Sleep Products Association, called the rule “a triple win” for safety, practicality and comfort.
The new standard will come at some cost to consumers, Murray said, though he had no hard estimates. He said products meeting the standard will use a new type of rayon treated to be more flame retardant