2017 Consumer Safety Year in Review

This past year has seen some really concerning – and in some cases, downright scary – news stories related to consumer safety issues. Whether it’s dangerous toys, big data breaches, or major verdicts and rulings in safety-related legal cases, these are the big things that everyone should be aware of before putting 2017 in the books.

Equifax Data Breach

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or are too young to apply for a credit card on your own), you probably heard about the enormous data breach at Equifax. It was all over the news for weeks, and it’s a security event that will likely affect many people for years to come.

Long story short, as one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax has sensitive financial data and personally identifiable information on millions of people. Sometime over the summer, hackers managed to steal information on 143 million people from Equifax’s servers, including details like Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and license numbers. A smaller number of people also had credit card numbers stolen as part of the breach.

While the breach is bad enough on its own, Equifax worsened the situation by keeping the breach quiet for months until the news finally broke in early September. In a scramble to rectify the situation, the credit bureau offered its premier TrustedID credit monitoring service to basically everyone for a year. That move, however, also was followed by even more criticism that the company could no longer be trusted to keep people’s information safe.

Now, Equifax is faced with hundreds lawsuits from customers, financial institutions, and others over their mishandling of consumer data. Ultimately, it may be years before the whole mess gets resolved – if it ever really does.

Plavix Ruling and Cross-State Lawsuits

Way back in the balmy month of June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bristol-Myers Squibb in a case that effectively threw out the claims of nearly 600 plaintiffs who had filed their lawsuits in California but lived in other states.

The case turned on a number of technical legal precedents related to jurisdiction and who could file in which court. Individuals who did not reside, purchase, ingest, or even receive a prescription for Plavix – the blood thinner at the heart of the case – in California also could not seek compensation in that state, Justice Samuel Alito argued in his majority opinion.

The question still remains as to how the Plavix ruling will affect other product liability cases, including the ongoing Xarelto lawsuits, or the renewed Pradaxa lawsuit claims. Many lawyers help their clients seeking plaintiff-friendly venues in which to file their cases, and as Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her solitary dissenting opinion, it is now unclear to what extent consumers will be able to band together to file class actions in cases where a product harms many people across a wide number of states.

Xarelto Verdicts: 3 – 1 for J&J

Speaking of blood thinners – which, by the way, were deemed the most dangerous class of drugs by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices – Johnson & Johnson is breathing a huge sigh of relief after three bellwether trials for its anticoagulant Xarelto this year have resulted in favorable verdicts for the pharmaceutical company.

Xarelto is one of a new set of blood thinners that have been developed in the last 10 – 15 years to help treat a variety of blood clot-related health conditions, from atrial fibrillation to stroke. However, unlike older blood thinners such as warfarin, Xarelto does not have an antidote that can reverse the drug’s effects in the event of severe bleeding. As a result, more than 20,000 people have filed lawsuits against Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of J&J) after experiencing bleeding events.

Unfortunately, the first three trials to be held in federal court have all been decided in favor of the defendants, leaving Xarelto victims high and dry. However, there is one glimmer of hope: In early December, a jury in Philadelphia came back with a verdict against J&J, ordering the drugmaker to pay $28 million to a woman who suffered severe internal bleeding after taking Xarelto. Unlike the federal cases, the Hartman case was file in a state court, and there are at least 1,500 other cases like it to go, meaning that the company isn’t out of the woods yet.

Also, just because the first few federal cases have gone to the defendant doesn’t mean that others will. With more than 18,000 lawsuits still part of the multidistrict litigation, it will likely be years before we know how everything will play out. J&J has refused to settle any cases so far, but even one decisive plaintiff victory could persuade the company to do otherwise.

Talcum Powder Lawsuits Gaining Momentum

J&J may only have lost one major Xarelto case, but when it comes to talcum powder products, the company has not been so lucky. This year saw several major multimillion dollar jury talcum powder lawsuits against the company, which makes the popular talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower Body Powder.

Although two of the most recent rulings against the company – one for $417 million and another for $72 million – have been overturned on appeal, there is still a long way to go before the final decisions are made. In fact, at the end of November, a Missouri judge upheld the original verdict in the $110 million case, a decision which the drug company is appealing as well. It’s important to note that the verdicts were overturned largely on legal technicalities (one of them a result of the Plavix trial mentioned above), not necessarily due to problems with the legal claims brought by the plaintiffs themselves.

At issue is the possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, a connection that meets with mixed results in various scientific studies and which Johnson & Johnson claims does not exist.

Takata Airbags – Still!

While it might seem like old news at this point, the Takata airbag debacle still going on, with Honda reporting earlier this month that yet another person has died due to a faulty airbag inflator.

First identified in 2014, millions of vehicles from a wide variety of manufacturers have been recalled due to problems airbags manufactured by Takata. Every month, hundreds of thousands of additional vehicles are added to the ever-growing lists of affected cars, minivans, SUVs, and trucks. And there seems to be no end in sight.

The continued problems with Takata airbags are the result of three factors:

  • Widespread use of Takata parts across many automakers;
  • Poor decisions made by the company in the early days of the recall (specifically, trying to limit it to only high-humidity climates); and
  • A lack of replacement parts to fix affected vehicles.

Whether or not you have received a card from your vehicle’s manufacturer telling you about the recall, everyone should check their car’s VIN against the recall database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Forward Into the New Year

The stories above are, of course, not the only safety concerns that happened this last year – just do a quick search for pressure cookers, Chipotle, or kid’s makeup to get an idea of some of the other problems that have happened throughout 2017.

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