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Hiding the Truth About Defective Products

General Motors (GM) recently recalled millions of its cars to fix a faulty ignition switch that caused a number of crashes. The evidence shows that GM had known about the problem for years but had hidden it to avoid having just such a recall, just as a decade ago Firestone hid knowledge that the tires it put on certain vehicles were dangerous. Although the GM and Firestone cases may be particularly outrageous, they are far from the only companies that have hidden evidence of dangerous products.

Designers and manufacturers who design and build defective products can be liable for any injuries or damages that their defective products caused. The lawsuit is called a products liability suit, and it can be based on the claim that the product was negligently designed, produced, or marketed. Of course, designers and manufacturers wish to avoid such suits, as they can be expensive and can damage a company’s reputation and bottom line. Sometimes the possibility of such an outcome leads the company to go to great lengths to hide evidence that its products are defective and dangerous.

There are examples involving all different kinds of products. Remember the Dalkon Shield, a contraceptive device sold in the 1970s. Despite receiving reports that the device caused infections, stillbirths, and even death, A.H. Robbins (the manufacturer) refused to stop its sale. When the FDA stopped its sale in the United States, the company continued to sell it overseas for another 10 years. Thousands of women lost their children, and some women died.

More recently, Guidant, a maker of medical devices, hid the fact that one of its implanted defibrillators could short‑circuit and fail to operate. Instead, Guidant decided to sell its existing stock of devices, and over the course of three years, it sold 37,000 defibrillators without warning doctors or their patients of the dangers. Again, many died, and others were deprived of the chance to choose another product.

The profits made from the sale of drugs also encourage companies to bury evidence of problems. Johnson & Johnson continued for years to market Propulsid to treat heartburn, all the time knowing it caused serious heart problems, especially in children. Bayer marketed Trasylol, a drug used to control bleeding, knowing it could cause kidney failure. GlaxoSmithKlein’s Avandia (a diabetes drug that caused heart problems), Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa (a psychotropic drug that caused diabetes), and the serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that many makers sold to treat depression but that caused an increased risk of suicide are still other examples.

Nor is our food safe from corporations that put profits ahead of safety. Nine people died and hundreds were sickened by salmonella‑contaminated peanut butter, despite the fact that the Peanut Corporation of America had known of the problem for at least three years, going so far as to hire a different testing lab to try to improve the results of tests for contamination.

In 2002, Pilgrim’s Pride continued to distribute chicken processed at a plant that it knew was contaminated with Listeria, killing eight and causing others to become sickened or to miscarry. Just a few years before that, people across the upper Midwest were killed or sickened by beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The plant that processed the meat would be closed due to contamination, would immediately reopen, and then would close again, the company never solving the underlying problem.

Even products aimed at children are sold with knowledge of their dangers. Magnetix toys, building blocks containing small magnets, were marketed for years despite the company’s receiving reports that small children could swallow the magnets, which would then attach to each other in the intestines and cause infections and bowel obstructions. Even when the government specifically asked, the company denied any knowledge of these injuries, and the product continued to be sold.

The fact of the matter is that for many companies, profits come before people, and the companies are willing to knowingly sell products that carry a danger of unnecessary death for those who use them. Although some complain about so‑called “frivolous lawsuits,” these cases illustrate the need for a civil justice system that allows those who have been harmed by dangerous products to bring damages claims against those responsible for their damage.

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